To celebrate his 30th birthday, Jerry Collins grabbed a bite to eat at Nando’s and received a cupcake. Given that the back-rower spent more time on the pitch last season than any other Ospreys player – 2,229 minutes to be exact – you would have thought that the region could have splashed out on a proper present for him.
Still, Collins isn’t complaining as he jokes: “By the time you get to 30 you’re too old to have birthdays. I was just training on that day – and it was cold and raining.” If Collins could have one birthday wish, however, he might well opt for an easier Heineken Cup pool. The Ospreys lost narrowly to his former club Toulon in their opening game of this European campaign before seeing off London Irish in Swansea, but this month they face two-time champions Munster back-to-back.
“If I had a choice of who was in our pool there wouldn’t be many teams lower on the list of who I’d want than Munster,” he laughs. “It’s a big challenge. Having said that, Munster have a great tradition in the Heineken Cup and if you’re going to qualify there’s no better way than going to Munster and winning. It’ll be tough but there have been teams who have gone over there and won before.” In fact, only Leicester have ever beaten Munster at Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup, 13-6 in 2007, so it’s an even bigger challenge than Collins imagines.
However, the Ospreys can take confidence from the fact they won at the Limerick venue for the first time ever in the Magners League last season and Collins knows the importance of returning to Swansea with at least a point. He says: “We’ve got to get something out of the game out there. Ideally we’d like to win, but we need to get at least a losing bonus point in a pool this tight.”
Collins has a few old friends over in Munster, the likes of former All Blacks team-mates Doug Howlett and Sam Tuitupou as well as Lifeimi Mafi, but he won’t be indulging in any text banter before crossing the Irish Sea. “They’re pretty serious customers and Dougie’s pretty fast so I wouldn’t want to p*** him off before the game. There’s always time to catch up and have a laugh afterwards.”
As for the return leg in Swansea on 18 December, Collins is hoping Ospreys fans turn out in force to counter the effect of Munster’s travelling support – and their vibrant shirts. “The last time we played them at the Liberty Stadium it felt like an away game because so many fans had come across for the game. Along with Toulouse, Munster have the best travelling support and with so many fans wearing red it can feel like an away game. Red is such a bright colour that if there are five red shirts in the middle of 50 black ones they stand out more – they picked the right colour! We’ve got to do a job out there first and then get more numbers down for the return leg.”
It’s the large crowds and vibrant atmospheres that Collins relishes in the Heineken Cup. It’s three years since he played a Test match and playing in front of packed stadiums is what he misses most about the international arena. “I wish we played the Heineken Cup every week because the intensity is so much better. It’s one of the choices I made to leave (New Zealand) and in terms of playing in front of big crowds every week, that’s the biggest thing I miss about it. I do envy the boys still playing, especially given what they’re doing and the way they’re doing it at the moment. The way the All Blacks have been playing in the last few months has been a pleasure to watch.”
The same can be said of the Ospreys at their best. Shane Williams produced a moment of magic against London Irish in October with a superb individual try, but the wing will miss the rest of the European pool stages having dislocated his left shoulder against South Africa. Still, they have international wings Tommy Bowe, Nikki Walker and Tom Prydie to call on. In fact, the Ospreys have strength in depth across the park. Collins, for instance, is competing with Wales’ Ryan Jones and Jonathan Thomas for a spot at six or eight.
This plethora of talent – Munster’s Denis Leamy describes their squad as “formidable” – is one reason why such high expectations are placed on the region; people believe they should win silverware every season. Last term they lifted the Magners League title, but in Europe they have made it to three successive quarter-finals and lost every one, so the pressure is growing to go at least one stage further. “Everyone wants the Heineken Cup and each year you aim to get as far as you can. We’ve the added pressure of being the highest-profile region in Wales. If we made the final and didn’t win, it’d still be seen as a failure for that season. You’ve never won it until you’ve won it!”
Munster know that feeling well after so many near-misses in Europe, but if Collins helps the Ospreys to back-to-back wins this month, the Welsh side will be favourites to get another shot at the quarters. Then, perhaps, the Ospreys will present the 30-year-old with a new contract.
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