Frank Oliver reflects on arrival of professional rugby

By Wynne Gray

It all began so promisingly for the Hurricanes.

Half an hour into the opening game of the professional Super rugby series, they were 16-0 in front and had the Blues under all sorts of strain.

Somehow that match, 11 years ago in Palmerston North, leaked away from the Hurricanes, as did all their attempts to reach a final in the decade of Super 12.

But tomorrow in the 128th match of their existence, the Hurricanes will fight for the title with the Crusaders, the heavyweights of the Super series.

"It has been a long time coming that's for sure," foundation coach Frank Oliver recalls with some understatement.

"Yeah, Palmerston North against the Blues, that was a helluva night. The town went berserk after it, streets were awash with people, it was real party time.

"Nobody really knew what we were doing and it has been some trip since.

"One week we were just playing footy and the next we were doing it and getting paid for it.

"We knew we had to be more diligent and more professional about the whole thing but we were unsure what that meant. We knew we were taking a dollar from the man and had to give a dollar back in sweat. It meant more preparation, there was an awareness of doing all that stuff."

But Oliver laughs at memories like sitting in the local Cobb&Co in Palmerston North, interviewing candidates to be the Hurricanes manager.

The world of professional rugby was a daily learning experience in his four seasons in charge.

Mark Allen was the original captain, a strong forward with the charisma to help with the promotion of the franchise and the competition.

The coach and the captain had formed a decent friendship in their days with the defunct Vikings enterprise and were united in their approach.

"We just lacked some quality players and selections to be consistent," Oliver said. "We had a high player turnover each year. I remember I had Doug Howlett, Andrew Blowers, Mark Cooksley - those sort of players and then they would be gone.

"We had to go to the draft a lot, take the cast-offs and start each season again. We did not have enough playing strength then in our core Wellington and Taranaki provinces.

"We played a bit of a rip, shit and bust style.

"It's changed now though. The Hurricanes have a stability in selections, experience and quality guys.

"They have real gas, the scrum creaks a bit but they have great loosies who hurt people."

As he meanders down memory lane, Oliver speaks fondly of the impact made by Tana Umaga for the Hurricanes.

Umaga was a wing in 1996, someone who was one of the side's potent weapons. He had also been the franchise's most consistent player, a real pro who kept churning out top-quality performances.

"Tana is just a fantastic professional while Cully [Christian Cullen] was simply brilliant. There was no bigger talent to come through the Hurricanes, he could rip anyone apart.

"Bull [Allen] was an under-rated scrummager, Norm Hewitt was a hard-nosed pro who had an edge to him, had a bite about him, while Filo Tiatia on his day could be very good."

Oliver guided the Hurricanes to one semifinal in 1997 when they lost 33-20 to the Brumbies.

He loved them getting over that playoff hoodoo last week and while he thinks they can win tomorrow he suspects the Crusaders will take the title.

"They are a nice, tight, polished group. If you want a picture of professional rugby, then the Crusaders are it. They are able to swap their plans around, play to the referee and do all the little things right which make up the big picture. I admire their whole set-up, their whole structure through their administration, coaching and playing staff."

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