On the cold, crisp evening of June the 9th 2007, after a meekly contested ruck deep in New Zealand’s half, murmurs flitted around the Wespac Stadium at the sight of the hirsute, formidable and feared frame of French number 8 Sebastian Chabal galloping up to receive the ball from scrumhalf Nicolas Durand. Said murmurs, however, quickly evolved into a unified, appreciative roar as the robust Frenchman’s challenge to the All Black defensive line was brutally cut down by the shoulder of one Jerry Collins.
The game of rugby gifts its followers many characters displaying various attributes which invoke admiration. In the opinion of many, few players embodied the tough, gritty, combative side of the game better than Collins.
On this day in 2015, a sombre chord struck through the rugby world as it learned the news of Collins’ tragic passing at the age of just 34.
“On the rugby field, obviously, hard as nails...but the first guy afterwards to come up, have a beer, exchange a shirt, you know...wonderful man,” said Schalk Burger, long-time friend.
Over his decorated career, Collins represented Wellington, the Hurricanes, Toulon, Ospreys, Yamaha Jubilo, Narbonne and, of course, the All Blacks. Although he pulled many different jerseys over his head, the spirit in which he played the game never altered. From New Zealand to Japan to Wales to France, the sight of the 1.91m, 112kg back-rower knocking opponents back with zealous ferocity (often followed by a familiar wry smile and wink) became a revered one in rugby.
With great achievements on the field, players may often fall victim to their own legends, letting inflated egos cloud the values which enabled them to rise to significance in the first place – not Jerry Collins;
While holidaying in Devon after New Zealand’s exit from the World Cup in 2007, Collins was spotted and approached by Kevin Squire, head coach of the local Barnstaple RFU. Squire invited Collins to attend the club’s match that weekend, an invitation which Collins (much to Squire’s pleasant surprise) accepted. When he turned up to the game, Collins was asked if he would be interested in running a coaching clinic for the club juniors the following week. Collins accepted. After the clinic, he was asked if there was any way the club could repay him for his services, to which he replied, ”I just want to play rugby”. Thus, the next Saturday, Collins, a 48-capped All Black, ran on for the Barnstaple RFU 2nd XV. Weeks later, when he was invited to play for the Barbarians, Collins wore his Barnstaple socks.
Such a story epitomises the man; never forgetting who he was, what the game was about and whom he met within it.
Now, five years on from the fateful car accident which claimed his life and the life of his partner, Alana Madill, Collins’ wonderful flair, the hard face which cracked so easily into a bright smile, the ostrich-egg biceps bulging in his sleeves, the rare majesty of his bruising defence and the love he harboured for the game that gave him so much and to which he gave so much back, live vividly on in the hearts and minds of rugby people the world over.
He is survived by a daughter, Ayla, who lives in Canada with family of Madill.