Oliver and Vickerman set for Varsity showdown
December 10, 2008
Former Wallabies lock Dan Vickerman will be in the engine-room for Cambridge © Getty Images
Thursday's annual Oxford-Cambridge Varsity match will be the site of a unique tran-Tasman clash this year, as former New Zealand hooker Anton Oliver packs down for Oxford against ex-Wallaby lock Dan Vickerman and Cambridge.
Oliver will be bringing 59 caps-worth of international experience to an Oxford side looking to win their first Varsity match in three years and will renew hostilities with Vickerman, a veteran of 54 Australia caps, after the lock opted to leave professional rugby in Australia behind him to study Economics at Cambridge. Cambridge also boast a former All Black in centre Mark Ranby and scrum-half Doug Rowe has two caps for the USA.
Oliver arrives at the Varsity match following a troubled stint with French side Toulon. He joined the side in the French second division following the All Blacks' World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of France. He was earning in excess of £200,000 a year and he helped Toulon win promotion to the Top 14, but couldn't abide not having anything to play for other than money.
"I had just come from the World Cup. We went home, faced the music - and then I came back to Europe. The whole World Cup-All Black experience was still quite raw," he recalled. "The first time I had to put on the Toulon jersey was quite a jarring experience. The jersey is a big thing; they are your colours, and it was foreign to me.
"I thought maybe it was that I didn't know the other guys, because that can be an important part. But it was something deeper than that. After about five or six weeks, I realised my rugby raison d'etre was to play for my country. Only once I was out of that context, and that possibility had been extinguished, I thought: 'What am I doing here?' I can't play for money.
"It is a legitimate job - but from my perspective, I needed something more than that. To play rugby well, it needs to mean something; otherwise you don't have the edge - you are not emotionally connected."
Oliver's solution to his problem was to apply to study biodiversity conservation and management at both Cambridge and Oxford. "The other lot" rejected him. But the call came from Oxford - and Oliver swapped a lucrative contract in the south of France for student digs, student rations and a bicycle.
"I have a little room with a little single bed and bike that takes me everywhere," said Oliver, who played at the University of Otago before making his All Blacks debut as a 21-year-old. "It has been a full circle, coming back to what the game was when I was first introduced to it - cycling to training and night training. The other night there was frost on the ground, so thick my studs wouldn't go into it. I haven't had that in about 13 years!
"On our pre-season trip, we were in Canada and we had to jump into taxis to get into the game - which we had to pay for ourselves. It is a good way to see the game through a different lens."
Oliver has found the transition from elite rugby to varsity rugby tough - and, in his own critical eye, he has been struggling for form this season. He admits to having lost his "All Black edge". "I have always got high standards, but the mentality and fitness has dropped off. Clearly there is a step down, and I'd be lying if I said I was as enthused as playing a Test match," he admitted.
Oliver will also be meeting another old friend at the Varsity match, the oft-maligned Wayne Barnes, who refereed New Zealand's World Cup exit to France. "You cannot put our defeat down to the referee. There were many other reasons we lost that game. But it was quite amusing when I found it out he is in charge!" he laughed.
Lock Vickerman is also relishing the opportunity to combine his studies with his love for rugby. "Rugby has been a big part of my life for years and coming here being able to combine study and sport is quite unique," he said. "Last time I was here [at Twickenham] I was fortunate enough to get a win so hopefully that will continue. To be able to come here and play such a special game and enjoy it with your mates is something I'm really looking forward to.
"Everyone plays rugby because they enjoy it. Being able to be part of a side and contribute is what makes the game so great. It is no different here. It is a team game and you work towards that common goal.
"It was always in the back of my mind to study and be a full-time student. As the years went by in the professional environment, the drive to do it got a little bit more and a little bit more. Near the end of my previous degree [finance at RMIT University in Melbourne] I thought it would be a good opportunity to shift my focus from full-time sport and get a world-class education at the same time.
"I spoke to a lot of guys. [Former Wallabies wing] Joe Roff went to Oxford. I had a few friends who went to Cambridge. They were all really helpful. They swore by the fact it was a great experience. They got a lot out of it and it has been no different for me so far.
"The guys have all made me feel welcome. I am still getting the routines of going to classes in the day and then studying and training in the evening but I am really enjoying it."
Oxford open-side and skipper Peter Clarke said of the side's most experienced campaigners, "Leaders like these guys will bring invaluable experience, especially for our younger players; our winger Sean Morris is a fresher and our fly half, Ross Swanson is only 19 years old.
"But we won't just be relying on them. It's very much a team effort and if we're to get the win, everyone from one to 22 will have to do their jobs."
Cambridge currently lead the tale of the tape, with 60 victories to Oxford's 52, but Cambridge captain Jon Dawson is aware that snaring another win at Twickenham will be a tough job. "We're not looking at the past, we're a different set of players who and treating this as a one-off game. Oxford have had a very good season, they're a very good side," said the former Harlequins prop.
"There is a younger element to our team but we've got a lot of experience, particularly in guys like Dan and Mark. It's a good blend and we'll certainly be giving it all we can."
Cambridge: Jimmy Richards (Hughes Hall), James Wellwood (St Edmund's), Chris Lewis (St. Catharine's), Mark Ranby (St. Edmund's), James Greenwood (Hughes Hall), Sandy Reid (St. John's), Doug Rowe (Hughes Hall), Niall Conlon (St Edmund's), Matt Crockett (St Edmund's), Jon Dawson (captain, St Edmund's), Marty Wilson (Selwyn), Dan Vickerman (Hughes Hall), Will Jones (St Edmund's), Tom Malaney (St Edmund's), Trevor Boynton (Hughes Hall)
Replacements: Andy Daniel (St Edmund's), Patrick Crossley (Homerton), Conor O'Keeffe (St Edmund's), Charlie Rees (St Catharine's), Joe Wheeler (St Edmund's), Rhidian McGuire (Hughes Hall), Scott MacLellan (St John's)
Oxford: Chris Mahony (Keble), Sean Morris (Somerville), Jon Burnett (University), Tom Gregory (Kellogg), Tim Catling (Pembroke), Ross Swanson (New), Brendan McKerchar (Keble), Ricky Lutton (Linacre), Anton Oliver (Worcester) , Wayne Thompson (St Cross), Ian Kench (St Cross), Bert Payne (St Peter's), Stan McKeen (Harris Manchester), Peter Clarke (captain, St Cross), Peter Wright (University)
Replacements: Dan Rosen (Worcester), Kevin Davis (Linacre) or Will Johnson (Pembroke), Nic Van Zyl (Green/Templeton), Chris Davies (St Edmund Hall), Toby Henry (Linacre), Alex Cheesman (St Edmund Hall), Will Browne (Balliol)