RW last spoke to Jerry Collins in 2009, when he was playing for the Ospreys. What struck us was his warmth of character. A tragic loss to everyone who knew and admired him
Following the tragic news of the death of Jerry Collins and his partner Alana Madill in a car crash in France, we are posting this Spotlight feature which was published in Rugby World’s October 2009 edition, just after the former All Black joined the Ospreys. It was a pleasure and a privilege to interview him – one of rugby’s great characters, as the content of the feature shows…
CONVENTIONAL is not exactly Jerry Collins’s middle name (in fact he doesn’t have a middle name, but that’s by-the-by). From the two-tone hair which was his trademark for years, to his decision to make his first match after New Zealand’s 2007 World Cup quarter-final a Devon Merit Table game for Barnstaple Second XV against Newton Abbot, this All Blacks flanker is his own man.
He swam against the tide once more this summer, moving from France to Wales, just as a shoal of British rugby stars crossed the Channel in the opposite direction. So why leave cash-rich Toulon to sign a two-year contract at the Ospreys in Swansea?
“My year in Toulon had some good and some bad parts, but as a club it wasn’t the best fit for me so I decided to move on,” Collins says. “The Ospreys is more to my liking.
“Every player is different and they all have different factors in making their decisions on where they want to play. Mine is more of a sports decision – after ten years of rugby I play because I want to, not because I need to. It’s about what I want to achieve. I could have stayed in France and played f***-all rugby for half the season and still got paid. But I am as competitive as the next guy and I really wanted to play.”
Collins talks about still wanting to “learn new things every year”, which sounds odd coming from a 28-year-old who played for the All Blacks 48 times, captained them three times and is one of the world’s leading back-row players – an inspirational rock in defence and a powerhouse in attack. The Ospreys certainly seem more concerned about his leadership qualities and the lessons he might teach his new team-mates, rather than the reverse, but the new recruit’s humble attitude is one of his many assets.
Having turned up for his first Ospreys training session less than 24 hours after he arrived from France, Collins was immediately paying due respect to a star-studded squad which includes the likes of Ryan Jones, Marty Holah, Jonathan Thomas and Filo Tiatia in its back-row resources. “There’s a very strong squad here with options in every position so I will have to earn the right to wear the shirt, which is exactly how it should be,” Collins says. “It’s not about past reputations. Fitness and form is what dictates whether someone is going to play. I need to be on top of my game if I want to make an impact and help the Ospreys succeed.”
After finishing fourth in the Magners League last season and being trounced 43-9 by Munster in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, the Ospreys are desperate to turn their potential into trophies. The region’s elite performance director Andrew Hore has brought in Scott Johnson as director of coaching – a man who has worked with the Wallabies and Wales as well as, most recently, the USA – and grabbed the opportunity to sign Collins. “We have always looked to bring in people of real quality from outside the region when we feel that they have the right characteristics to complement what we already have here, and Jerry Collins certainly fits that description. He is a proven world-class performer,” Hore says.
After a decade of top-class rugby in New Zealand and France, Collins is keen to sample the delights of the Magners League and keener still for a slice of Heineken Cup action.
“I would love to win the Heineken Cup,” he says. “When I watch it on TV it seems like a pretty good trophy to win. It’s a huge competition over here and it’s getting bigger and bigger every season.
“I joined the Ospreys because what they said about what they want to achieve this year and the kind of rugby they want to play was pretty good. I could have just gone back to New Zealand but I like Europe and having played just one season here it wasn’t long enough for me. There are so many things I want to experience in terms of rugby and culture too. I plan to stay in Swansea for three or four years if I can.”
There can’t have been a shortage of clubs in France, Ireland or the UK willing to sign Collins up, but he grew up hearing tales of the great rugby culture in Wales. “London is too big and Scotland too cold! Wales is just about right for me!” he laughs. “It’s a similar country to New Zealand in terms of rugby being the main sport.”
Collins has already experienced English club rugby, but a world away from the Guinness Premiership. After the 2007 World Cup he had an extended holiday in Devon, where his daughter, who was born in that year, lives with her mother. He was spotted in a restaurant by Barnstaple rugby club coach Kevin Squire, who invited him – more in hope than expectation – to training. Collins ended up taking a junior coaching session and bought a new pair of boots especially so he could turn out for Barnstaple seconds. He then proudly wore his Barnstaple socks when he played for the Barbarians that winter.
His employers in New Zealand were not impressed. “When I got home they said they were going to fine me because I was in breach of contract but the players’ association said it was a good thing for rugby and they reconsidered,” Collins says. “I am still in touch with the people in Devon and I go there as much as I can to see my daughter.”
Now Collins is setting up a new base in Swansea and getting to know his team-mates. “The international players were all on holiday when I arrived, so it’s a young squad at training. They move pretty fast, which keeps me on my toes!”
Ospreys fans might get their first chance to see him in action during the pre-season friendly against Leeds Carnegie at the Liberty Stadium on 22 August, but they can look out for him in the mean time, mountain biking to and from training, and even getting in a bit of surfing during his time off. “I have to find a wetsuit that’s thick enough first,” he chuckles.