Anton Oliver had been the All Blacks captain between 2000 and 2001 – a job he took after becoming a regular starter in 1998. An abrasive and damaging hooker, he was a cerebral character with the respect of those with whom he played.
But it was clear that when new coach John Mitchell arrived in late 2001, he wasn't such a big fan. He shifted the captaincy to Reuben Thorne, but kept Oliver in the squad.
Until the middle of 2003 that was – and then he dropped him. When Graham Henry took over in 2004, he made it clear to Oliver that he didn't see things any di erently.
Oliver had been invited to play for the Barbarians in London in June 2004 – but the fixture would clash with the All Blacks trial. He spoke with Henry who told him to accept the invitation as he was the fourth-choice hooker.
Unwanted, Oliver decided in August 2004 that he was over professional rugby and started seeking educational opportunities in the UK.
He had no contract for 2005 and when Otago were knocked out of the NPC he made his farewell speeches.
But amazingly, while he had checked out mentally, the All Blacks coaches thought he had delivered the sort of form they were after. They wanted him back and so they persuaded Oliver to reconsider his plans, to sign with the Highlanders and commit his future to playing rugby in New Zealand.
Which he did and which is why, having believed his career was over, he was unusually emotional when he was presented with his All Blacks jersey before his comeback test against Italy in November 2004.
“Then it starts and I can’t — and realise I don’t wish to — stop it,” he wrote in his book. “I start to cry. I drape the jersey over my head and find myself leaning forward, holding my head in my hands with the jersey catching the falling tears. The sobs are uncontrollable. I’m not sure why I’m crying. I’m 29 years old, it is the first time I’ve cried in front of grown men.”
LOST CAUSE Anton Oliver had emotionally checked out of professional rugby when he was recalled by the All Blacks in 2004.