Friday 5th June 2015
THE last thing Super Rugby leaders, the Hurricanes ever expected on a winter’s evening was to be holding a minute’s silence before their Friday night match in memory of the 34 year old ‘Terminator’ All Black with trademark blonde hair who was capped 74 times for the Wellington franchise in New Zealand.
Tragedy hit in the dawning hours of Friday morning, when Jerry Collins was travelling with his partner, Alana Madill along the A9 highway in Herault, en route to Montpellier returning from a testimonial dinner for Perpignan and Samoan international, Henry Tuilagi at Canet-en-Roussillon. The couple’s four month old baby girl, Ayla was in the back seat. It is believed Ms Madill was driving, and according to the emergency services people who attended, the couple had stopped on the hard shoulder possibly due to some mechanical or technical issue. Just after 04.30 CET, as the car was returning to the road, it was hit by a bus, killing Jerry and Alana instantly as it was thrown 10 metres into the central barrier. Baby Ayla had to be cut out of the vehicle by emergency services and was immediately air lifted to hospital in Montpellier, where she remains critical.
Six foot three, 17 stone flanker and sometimes No8, former All Blacks captain, Jerry Collins, was born in Apia, Samoa on 4th November 1980. Like so many Islanders, the Collins family moved to Wellington, and it was not long before the feisty teenager was making waves at St Pat’s, New Zealand’s oldest Catholic boys school. It was never in question that he would excel himself directly into representing New Zealand Schools, before being named Player of the Tournament at the U19 Junior World Championships in 1999.
Rugby was in his blood; he was younger cousin to international backs, brothers Mike Umaga who represented Samoa, and former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga. And the legacy still continues with younger cousin, Newcastle Falcons and Samoan winger, Sinoti Sinoti.
18 year old Collins took his provincial place at Wellington in 1999 after playing for The Norths club, and began representing the Hurricanes making his then Super 12 debut in 2001. The same year Jerry made his All Blacks debut against Argentina in Christchurch that June, but he would have to wait another two years to win his second of 48 caps, playing in his hometown of Wellington against a fierce England side who went on to win the World Cup that year.
It was against Argentina that Collins won his ultimate accolade of captaining the All Blacks in June 2006, the 61st leader of the almost infallible twice World Champions. The honour was bestowed upon him twice more at the 2007 Rugby World Cup for the penultimate two matches against Portugal and Romania, before Richie McCaw took back the reins and the All Blacks were unceremoniously hurled out of the tournament by feisty hosts, France in Cardiff, Wales. This was Jerry Collins last outing in the All Blacks shirt.
This was the same year in which Jerry Collins endeared himself to the world, when post-RWC 2007, he holidayed in Devon rather than Dubai, and ended up turning out for Barnstaple RFC in a spectacular 21-7 away win against Newton Abbot.
Just weeks later, Collins was invited to represent the Barbarians FC at Twickenham to beat the exhausted 2007 Rugby World Cup winning Springboks, and he turned up wearing Barnstaple socks!
Collins stayed with the Canes until the end of the 2008 season, when he formally retired from international rugby, and moved to newly-promoted Toulon to join fellow All Black, Sonny Bill Williams. A season in the south of France was enough before Collins captured the hearts of the Welsh, joining Ospreys on a two year deal, and where in the first he was named Player’s Player of the Year, and the team beat Leinster to the secure the Magners League title. The next three years Collins spent imparting his fun and wisdom to the Yamaha Júbilo team in Iwata, Shizuoka, Japan before he took a sabbatical in 2014.
In what turned out to be Jerry Collins’ final hurrah, Pro D2 team Narbonne signed him as a joker médical, covering for Rocky Elsom.
Jerry Collins was a hard man of rugby, known as ‘The Hitman’ and famously taking out Welshman Colin Charvis with such ferocity in 2003, and flattening beasts like Sébastien Chabal in a 2007 test against France.
Collins was not averse to controversy, arrested in his hometown of Hamamatsu in Japan for brandishing a 17cm houcho knife, but released after paying a fine and attempting to explain he needed protection from a Brazilian gang who had taken a dislike to him. Bygones.
What is not in doubt, is that apart from a few ill-informed observers, Jerry Collins was a much loved and adored man off the field, just as much as he was a monster on it. Alongside Richie McCaw and Rodney So'oialo, the three formed one of the most frightening back rows in the history of modern rugby.
Though who would have believed ‘The Hitman’ had seen ‘The Sound Of Music’ 50 times and knew all the words to the soundtrack! Prior to the 2007 RWC, Jerry revealed to the Nelson Mail during his book tour that in Samoa, it was one of only three movies to watch at the cinema. The other two were 'Seven Brides For Seven Brothers' and 'Rambo'.
The tributes have poured in from across the globe for the ferocious and kind-hearted legendary All Black.
Barnstaple RFC posted this morning "Hei maumaharatanga ki te tino hoa," Maori for "in remembrance of friends".
Martin Corry, former England skipper, and a direct opponent of Collins many times, spoke emotionally of Collins’ death: “I have to admit, I choked up a little when I heard the news this morning.
“You know, people have asked me about Jerry the player. Yeah, he was tough and brilliantly gifted, and a huge challenge, but, as I’ve toured and played with him, I will remember Jerry the guy. He was humble to a fault, proud of his upbringings and had so many life experiences and tales to tell. His antics as a dustbin man prior to turning professional are the stuff of legend and far too risqué to print. In short, he had a story of life to tell and he was proud of that.
“As a flanker, he was brutal; direct and far quicker and skilled than you may first think. I always knew I was in for a hard afternoon going head to head with Jerry yet I also knew the evening’s celebrations would be equally tough with him! I am proud to have played with and against him. You always knew what you’d get but win or lose, he’d be the first to shake you buy the hand and, post match, insist you join him with a neat Vodka on the rocks, his tipple of choice, and battle you could guarantee he’d win.
“I am so sorry to hear of his and Alana’s passing; rugby has lost one of its stars today. I will spend a moment today to remember Jerry but importantly pray his young daughter will recover fully.”
Sean Fitzpatrick, former All Blacks captain, told BBC Radio Five: “He became an All Black at a very young age (20) and went on to wear the jersey with pride. He was as tough as old boots on the field, but a loving man and very caring off the field. He was the nicest guy you would meet, but not someone you’d want to play against. We say good men make great All Blacks and he was a very, very good man.”
Jerry Collins’ long-standing manager Tim Castle, speaking on behalf of the family said: “The family and I are distraught at the death of a much-loved son, brother and friend, and his partner Alana, whom I got to know recently.
“I have been in touch with Jerry’s father Frank and other members of his family who are in Samoa at the moment. It’s obviously a terribly difficult time for them and together with New Zealand Rugby we are doing all we can to support them.
“I have also been in touch with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who are also doing everything they can to ensure that baby Ayla is getting all the care and support she needs. I am very grateful for their support.
“The family would also like to thank everyone for their messages of support and have asked for privacy at this time.”
We leave you this final thought from Jerry's close friend, which sums up the emotion of the rugby world that knew him,
“He was the most amazing, loving and generous person I've ever met and I was lucky to see all the beautiful sides of Jerry. I was truly blessed to have known him and loved him.”