As a player and coach, Frank Oliver straddled the amateur and professional eras of rugby. He adapted well to the new school as coach but his heart was always old school.

He was one of those for whom cliched expressions such as "hard as nails" and "salt of the earth" may have been coined. His team-mates were always grateful he was on their side and opponents sometimes may have wondered how they could swap sides. Off the field, Oliver was a good man to have as a mate.

There is a story, more or less true, that one of Oliver's Southland team-mates was set upon by four larrikins late one night. Oliver went to the rescue with such vigour that the larrikins retreated to their car and locked the doors. Oliver sat cross-legged and menacing on the bonnet until police arrived.

He brought character, humour and passion to a game that he loved and for which he might have been born; rugby in the 1970s exactly suited the type of man he was and rugby was a game better for the presence of such a man. His nickname "Filth" implied he may not have been averse to indulging in the nefarious arts but, in the absence of conclusive evidence, it seems more than likely he acquired it in his younger rugby days because of his job as a policeman.


Oliver did not long remain an officer of the law; the parting may have been greeted with relief by both parties. Oliver was a hard man on the field because first-class rugby, especially international rugby, is no place for soft men. But it would be a mistake to equate hard with dirty.

If justice needed to be done, just as long as it wasn't seen to be done, Oliver was adept at dispensing it - but only if the offender had fair warning and the referee had done nothing. Dirty players are sly kickers, eye gougers, scrotum squeezers. Oliver was not one of them.

But to paint Oliver only as a hard man is to do him an injustice. He was a splendid physical specimen with an athleticism that went beyond what was expected in his day and would be welcomed in today's game. He worked hard at his game and gained the rewards that brings.

Oliver never thought he'd be an All Black. He represented Southland for six years and played four trial matches and four inter-island games before he got the call. He thought the selectors might have found him a bit rough round the edges but, when they finally picked him, they found a hard man with a soft core.

Before the match against Wales in 1978, captain Graham Mourie asked Oliver to talk to the team about how to avoid being affected by the Welsh singing. He told them his son Mark would be getting up in the middle of the night and hunched in front of the television in his pyjamas. "I'll just be thinking of him," Oliver said.

When Oliver was interviewed by the BBC after the game, the interview ended with Oliver fixing his penetrating gaze on the camera and saying, across the oceans, "Hi Mark".