When the news broke that former All Blacks loose forward Jerry Collins had died in a car crash in France, the rugby world expressed its collective grief. MARC HINTON reports.
It was easy to forget, in life, what a respected and beloved rugby player and person Jerry Collins had become as his career faded from the limelight he never craved but which all too readily sought him out. Then along came death to deliver its chilling reminder of a bloke who in so many ways embodied the very essence of what it means to rise to the top in this brutal sport.
He was one of the sport’s toughest practitioners; yet he was a big softie off the paddock, with a heart of gold. He was the strong, silent type around the game, capable of freezing an attacker in his tracks with one icy glare and a flex of those huge muscles he possessed.
Yet he loved nothing more than to sit and chat to comparative strangers when the time and place felt right. He was a sneaky smoker; yet understood the power of his body. He was gregarious; yet hated phones. If he was a bit of a paradox, he was a charming one, as became all too clear in the wake of the tragic events of 5 June.
Yes, Jerry Collins is dead. At just 34, still fanning the embers (in Narbonne) of the final stages of a rugby career that had some heat left in it if he was going to have anything to do with it. In the end, though, even that was taken from him.
It seems impossible, like a bad dream we are all going to wake up from, even though we all know it’s true because we’ve read the tributes, listened to the eulogies and witnessed the mass mourning for a larger-than-life character who emerged out of the mean streets of working-class Porirua, near Wellington, to become one of the most respected, and feared, All Blacks of his generation.
Collins was one of rugby’s true hard men on the field. He had a body carved seemingly out of stone, hit like a freight train – just ask Colin Charvis, who was once knocked stone- cold by a Jerry special – and had the biggest biceps ever recorded in All Blacks history.
He won 48 caps in the famous black jersey of his country between 2001 and 2007, and on every one of those occasions played with a thunderous commitment and shuddering strength of force that was his trademark as a rugby player. If he had a pain barrier, it was far greater than any mere mortal’s.
Yet beneath the granite exterior lay a warm heart, a genuine love of people and a mischievous side that was as endearing as it was, occasionally, problematic. That much has been made clear as the rugby world has paid its collective tribute to one of the good guys of the professional game – a man not without his faults, but who was such a humble, likeable, agreeable and often remarkable sort of bloke, that it hurts to think that life goes on without him.
In the early hours of that fateful early-June morning in the south of France, the car in which Collins was travelling, driven by his partner Alana Madill, collided with a bus and the pair were killed instantly. What has emerged since, and what surprised no one who knew this selfless fellow, was that Collins’ final act, as he sat in the back seat, was to wrap himself around his six-month-old daughter Ayla in an attempt to save her. At the time of writing Ayla was in a stable but serious condition in a hospital in Montpellier, fighting to continue the life her father so desperately sought for her.
Said fellow former All Black and close friend Chris Masoe at the packed funeral in Porirua: ‘When you realised what was coming and you protected Ayla from the impact with your arms and your whole body over her … you made it possible for her to have a chance. That’s the man you are.’
That’s the man rugby will simply not be the same without.
Collins had a largely uncomplicated approach to the sport he was seemingly made for.
‘What is toughness? I don’t think it’s a quality, more a mentality,’ he once said. Remember, this is a guy who in the early years of his professional career worked for free on the rubbish trucks around Wellington because he enjoyed the job’s experiences. He also once declared: ‘To prepare for a really big match you don’t have to be in a good mood, or even a bad mood … you just have to be in the right mood.’
Early in his career, the fellow most of his mates knew as JC told a magazine writer: ‘I don’t need to be the leading man. I don’t want to be the star, just a great support player who gets chucked in to do the hard work. I’ll be happy knowing people respected me for being a good servant. For being hard. Not dirty, but hard.’
Collins, wherever he is now, can be well satisfied with his legacy. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen says he’ll be remembered as so much more than the ‘tough man’ he was.
‘He loved the game and the camaraderie,’ muses Hansen. ‘He didn’t expect anything out of it. Everything he got was a bonus. He was an intelligent man but he chose not to always portray that. He kept a lot of things to himself.’
‘People look at you and think you’re just a lug of muscle and there’s nothing between your ears,’ Collins told one interviewer. ‘It’s a good way to be, because then you’ve only got to measure up to yourself, and to be happy with yourself is the main thing.’
One of Hansen’s abiding memories of Collins is one that will probably surprise a few people. In 2006 he captained the All Blacks for the first time in a Test against Argentina in Buenos Aires. At the after-match function he delivered his speech in fluent Spanish, stunning not just his hosts, but his teammates, who thought they knew him so well.
‘He was a lot cleverer than people gave him credit for,’ adds Hansen. He never forgot where he came from, either. His friends were important to him. If you wanted to get the best out of him that was the way to do it; use his love for his mates and for the game to go to greater heights.’
Probably the most famous Collins story was rehashed over and over again in the wake of his death. It involved him turning out for the 2nd XV of the tiny Barnstaple club in Devon soon after the All Blacks had tumbled out of the 2007 World Cup. He happened to be in the area, a conversation at a pub turned into an invite, and before they knew it, the second-stringers from an outfit precious few had heard of were running out with a renowned All Black in their midst. It was a day they will never forget.
Soon after, when invited to play for the Barbarians in their annual end-of-year fixture, Collins proudly sported the club’s socks in what was undoubtedly a first. Just Jerry being Jerry.
At his funeral, cousin and former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga spoke about a ‘unique character’ for whom he often acted as an intermediary because people were ‘too scared’ to approach him. But Umaga said he always knew how to get through to his fellow Samoan.
‘You didn’t need to muck around with Jerry. He liked it direct. He didn’t like this airy-fairy stuff – and that’s what I respected about him. He didn’t mince his words. If he liked you, you knew it. And if he didn’t, you knew that too.’
This was a fellow who once walked into a pub, asked where their TV was, and when told they didn’t have one, went and bought one for the establishment. A guy who every time he ran off the field after a Hurricanes game would wave to where he knew his former schoolteacher was sitting because she had ‘straightened him out’ as an errant fourth-former.
All Blacks midfielder Ma’a Nonu remembered admiring Collins as an aspiring schoolboy from the capital and being overjoyed when he one day became a teammate for Wellington, the Hurricanes and eventually the national side.
‘He was ruthless, fearless, brave, courageous and a leader. But most of all, in JC’s words, he was a soldier – a soldier who sacrificed, bled, and inspired kids all over New Zealand, but especially in Wellington. He was a true legend.’
Like a true legend, his deeds live on, long after his tragically early death.
– This article first appeared in the August 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine