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It was four years ago when former All Black Anton Oliver was struck by a painting of a cup of tea and a piece of toast by Dunedin artist Simon Richardson.

Oliver loved the painting so much he bought it for $10,000. It was sent to him by renowned artist Grahame Sydney, who was mentoring Richardson at the time.

Since then, the link between the footballer, 33, and the artist, 34, has become stronger over the years, as the pair have talked over cups of tea in Richardson's Broad Bay studio.

It was there that Richardson persuaded Oliver to bare all and pose two years ago, resulting in a painting that caused ripples among conservative All Black ranks.

Former All Black Colin Meads questioned publicly why a rugby player would pose nude, saying "we're supposed to be salt of the earth, down-to-earth, grassroots, bloody good guys". But this never caused Oliver to question his decision to pose.

He just shrugged off the conservative ramblings, reasoning that in art, nudes are normal.

Oliver was so taken with the painting, unveiled two years ago, that he agreed to pose again last year, this time front-on and clothed. "I'm not going to have my life dictated to me by other people," says Oliver, who posed in an armchair, sitting for hours at a time, in Richardson's studio.

Oliver says it was a good excuse to stop, relax, be still and think. A couple of times he fell asleep.

It wasn't until he had seen the finished painting that he realised how unhappy he had been.

"The past three to four years of rugby in New Zealand, possibly from 2003-2007, weren't really stellar years for me. I didn't enjoy them and they just got worse.

"A lot of my really good friends had just left Dunedin and I wasn't playing with my good mates anymore," says Oliver. He was keen to tackle the next phase of his life.

Richardson says he tried to capture Oliver's "presence" and how he was at the time.

"He is very open," says Richardson. "He talked a lot about what he was going through at that time, the decisions he was trying to make. It was a difficult time for him.

"He was in rugby, but not 100 per cent sure about it. He was coming to the end of that."

Oliver appreciated that Richardson wasn't overly interested in rugby, nor starstruck by his All Black status.

"I would come in the door and we would usually have a cup of tea - cups of tea are great - and talk about what he's been painting, "says Oliver.

"I would generally ask him about his life first because mine was fairly boring. He might then ask me a bit about rugby, but he doesn't really follow rugby that much.

"That's what attracted me to that friendship," he says.

"I don't like any kind of relationship, or anyone, who wants to know me based on my prior accomplishments with an oval ball.

"It's a fairly vacuous and unsubstantial way to develop a friendship.

"Ah, I guess that's a bit harsh.

"I guess if someone's got an admiration for what you've done, that's cool, but that should only be the start of something that grows into something more."

Oliver likes that Richardson is not a blokey-bloke. "He's pretty quiet and introverted, introspective. He's a really nice chap."

The friendship has developed like one of Richardson's paintings, he says, "slow and measured."

In turn, Richardson describes Oliver as great company, intelligent, honest and with a genuine love of art. He admires the former All Black hooker's confidence and ability to "back himself" - an attribute he has had to work on over the years.

"I find him quite inspiring," says Richardson. And he's an ideal subject to paint. There's the 111kg muscular frame for a start, the 1.87m height, plus bold and interesting facial features, a look often found in famous realist paintings, Richardson's style.

"He's got this amazing presence when you meet him because everything about him is so big, and he normally doesn't have any shoes on and has these massive feet."

NOW BASED in Oxford where he is studying at university, Oliver always ensures he visits the Richardsons, including wife Gepke and son Eben, 2, when he is in the country.

He is yet to meet the new addition to the family, seven-week-old Mila. Gepke and Eben are also regular stars in Richardson's works while Mila is about to be sketched. "She is looking to be my best sitter yet - she sleeps for five hours at a time," he says.

His father, John Richardson, and father-in-law Gerald Schouten are also included in his up-coming exhibition, along with a self-portrait.

Oliver admires Richardson's bravery with painting his family.

"You open yourself up for criticism and I know what that's like being a professional sports player. I was getting appraised by hundreds of thousands of people, and certainly millions when you play test matches, and there's nowhere to hide," says Oliver.

So will Oliver pose again? Both are keen and Oliver jokes: "I could be a time series, every 10 years, do another nude when I'm 70.

"I would love to sit for him again if I could because I like cups of tea, his scones and he's a friend, so it's like going and hanging out with a friend and he paints me for a while."

But Oliver isn't keen to go back to rugby after 14 years in the game.

"There's something reductive about being in a group with 35 to 40 other males, going around doing the same thing all the time.

"I want to go and do other things, push myself intellectually and experience new things," he says.

That new thing is likely a double major in law and economics at Auckland University - tools he could use later in the environmental field.

Meanwhile, he is keen for Richardson to be the one in the limelight. "He is going to be one of New Zealand's great realist painters. He's reinvigorating the genre and trying to do it in challenging ways."

Simon Richardson's Otago Origin exhibition is at the Jonathan Grant Galleries, Parnell, from October 31 for three weeks.