Oliver's big game

Thursday, February 24, 2005    

Oliver will make history at Carisbrook when he becomes the first New Zealander to play 100 Super 12 games, but it is playing for the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy that makes the match special for him.

“It’s probably the most important game of the season,” Oliver said. “Gordon was a close friend and the last few years I have put a lot of passion into this game and been emotionally drained at the end of it. It will be a time to reflect.”

Hunter was a former Otago, Highlanders and Blues coach, as well as national selector from 1996-99. He passed away in 2002 with cancer aged 52. Since then the Highlanders have won the trophy twice and the Blues once.

“Gordon was a great friend, a ‘one-off,’ and there’s no one even remotely similar to him. Anyone who knew him will testify to that,” Oliver added.

Friday’s match marks the 10th occasion the two sides have met in the Super 12 with the Highlanders winning four and losing five. Three of those four wins have been on Carisbrook.

The Blues are stacked with current All Blacks, including Oliver’s opposition Keven Mealamu and Oliver admits he particularly enjoys playing against fellow All Blacks: “Playing against your mates is quite good fun and you get to have a chat afterwards. I don’t really know many of the South African or Australian players very well, except Wallaby hooker Brendan Cannon – he’s a good chap and we have a friendship off the field.”

Over the years Oliver has also enjoyed playing alongside teammates from different backgrounds and cultures, “It gives the team more depth and complexity – especially on the social front. Getting to really know Samoans, Tongans and Fijians has been something I would not have had a chance to do if I didn’t play rugby.”

Now 29, Oliver told the big difference between preparing for the inaugural 1996 Super 12 and the 2005 season is the ‘unknowns’ are now largely known. “1996 was a huge step into the unknown and we really had no idea what we were going to confront. The travel to Africa, recovery, the tools used and technology is now well documented.

“Back then we didn’t know who the guys in Africa were. Now you can pick up a game played anywhere in the world and study everything about it.

Oliver believes the game is a lot more physical and faster these days: “I think the forwards’ skill level has come up considerably, but think the backs skill levels are more or less the same. Because the backs are bigger and more robust now, in some ways they have lost the subtleties they had back then when defence lines weren’t as constrictive.”

Although Oliver does not know exactly what is planned for him to commemorate his 100th match, he wants to give the Carisbrook faithful a win to help celebrations and hopes to have a cold one himself after the game. “I like to eat ice creams after a game, lately I’ve been going for Gold Rush or Cookies and Cream.”

Oliver’s top three Rebel Sport Super 12 games:

1999 Semifinal vs. Stormers. Cape Town, Highlanders won 33-18: “We had just been beaten by the Hurricanes at home and had to go all the way to South Africa where the home team had been playing really well. We had minimal time to prepare and we played probably one of the best games I’d ever played in, it was a complete victory.”

2002 vs. Blues. Auckland, Highlanders won 54-17: “It was the first time we played for the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy and the first time any Otago or Highlanders team had won in Auckland for about 30 years so that was very special.”

2004 vs. Waratahs. Sydney, Highlanders won 29-28: “We beat New South Wales for the first time ever in the Super 12, and it was the first time a team from Otago had beaten them in over 100 years.