Anton Oliver

by Matt Nippert / 08 September, 2007

Anton Oliver, art lover, environmentalist and shoe-hater, is the philosopher of the All Black front row. He has penned an anti-growth essay for Landfall and lent his name to causes protecting yellow-eyed penguins and opposing what he calls "wind factories" in Southland. At the end of the year, he heads to France to play for Toulon, but before he plays under coach Tana Umaga, the multi-syllabic Oliver will almost certainly be wearing the No 2 jersey as the All Blacks begin their quest to win the Rugby World Cup.

Will the constant reference to "choking" at past World Cups be prophetic? Other teams label us as "chokers" as part of their psychological warfare, so if we didn't talk about it, it would be like not recognising the big horrible elephant in the corner of the room. For us, it's "This is what people are saying to try and destabilise us."

You're probably the last All Black who grew up playing in the amateur era. Was the game better in the good old days? Well, everything was better in those halcyon days. [Laughs] Certain things were definitely better, but professionalism was on a steady march that no one could stop, and now you have to accept that there is no way back.

The All Blacks now get talked about as a brand, which horrifies me. I don't want to play for a brand! And branding is an ancillary subject of commercialisation and it's made rugby - even test match rugby - about entertainment.

So, it's no longer about just winning a game? It's not so much about winning and losing, it's about people having a "good experience". You listen to marketers and promoters and sponsors - clearly they want us to win - but the underlying premise is the entertainment. They want to be associated with something that's positive.

They want not only wins, but also four-try bonus-point wins. And that's been really difficult. I think most people come to Super 14 rugby, and tests, as a form of escapism. They're getting away from the important thing in their life: mortgages and stresses and pressures and kids and deadlines. And they flock to a game in a really tribal manner.

And you're not one to go with the crowd? This is why I like art - making for a nice, serendipitous tie-in - because it does the inverse of sport. You go and stand in front of a Rembrandt and you are completely connected with it. All the haze and noise and general palaver that surrounds you evaporates, and you end up tapping into something that's deeper.

Are you still living in that studio above an Dunedin art gallery? I've just moved into a storage unit, actually. [Laughs] I've taken the monastic lifestyle a little too far.

Shouldn't you be wearing gumboots, drinking beer, driving a V8 and being a quintessential Kiwi bloke? I'm the son of an ex-All Black captain, so right from the start I've been put in a box. New Zealanders can't help it - it's something intrinsically within us to start making observations and slowly but inexorably come to judgment. We don't even know we're doing it.

So, you've intentionally kicked out the sides of your box by getting into art and the environment? Initially I did, because I resented being called a rugby head. In my interpretation that's a very pejorative term.

With some justification. I got beaten up by rugby heads at secondary school. Well, that wasn't me! [Laughs] It was almost a bellicose thing, trying to prove to people that I'm not a rugby head, and then there was a slow process of just being happy with who I am. But that's just age, isn't it? An extension of those horrible teenage years when you're insecure. It just takes longer for an All Black because we live in a hyper-reality.

After rugby in France, what's next for you? I'd like to go and study again. So much of my life to this point has been planned. I'm told what to wear and where I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to be saying. And I'm not a great believer in plans, I think plans are overrated. Lawyers do it in six-minute allotments and I'm terrified by that.

I'm going to play it like I see it, and who knows? It's kind of freaking me out, but it's a good thing. It's a good place to be: exposed, vulnerable, thinking, "What am I going to do?"

Perhaps you should become a political agitator. After all, you've written on the subject for Landfall. What we need to do in society is start talking about limits. Because growth and limits are incompatible, they don't work together. If the world grew commensurably with how many people it had, it would be fine because all the resources and people would stay at a nice fixed ratio. But it's not.

Everyone has to start asking themselves, "What do we really need? And what do we want?" This is getting on a huge leftist rant, but when you start talking about the environment, invariably it all comes back to growth. Growth is what's driving capitalism, and capitalism is what's driving the world.

So, after rugby you'll presumably be studying art history or political economy, and not anything towards an MBA? No. [Laughs] Not an MBA ... But it would be interesting to get inside the mind of the enemy and know how it works.

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