It Would Have Been Hard To Leave Out The Hardest Of Hard Men… Jerry Collins

It Would Have Been Hard To Leave Out The Hardest Of Hard Men… Jerry Collins

As the new Guinness Pro14 season kicks off, many rugby fans be will looking forward to great tries, flowing moves and wondrous skills. Others, well, their tastes are more . . . fundamental. They love big hits, snarling confrontations and perhaps a bit of sneaky retribution (within the laws, of course). Author Luke Upton loves a hard man. That’s why he’s written a book about the hardest of them. Published on October 16, Hard Men of Rugby, features some real characters, like the late, great Jerry Collins.

In selecting the twenty players who were to feature in Hard Men of Rugby (Y Lolfa, 16th October), some like Wayne Shelford or Bakkies Botha were obvious choices and needed little introduction, others like pre-WW1 Scottish firebrand David Bedell-Sivright or the talented, troubled French forward Armand Vaquerin needed more research and I enjoyed digging into their worlds.

Three Welshmen are featured, and the complex Scott Gibbs was a particular favourite, with my own spell at St Helens (albeit selling lottery tickets rather than playing…) coinciding with his successful second term at the All Whites and making me a particular fan of his silkily abrasive style.

But of the players featured, and I ended up feeling attached to nearly all of them, it was the late, great Jerry Collins for whom I felt the greatest connection.

Certainly his tragic death, at just 35 alongside that of his partner, Alana Madill, still feels a shock. And in my research and conversations around him, there still seems a sense of disbelief that he is no longer with us.

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From Samoa to Swansea, from New Zealand to Narbonne and many, many places in between, the huge outpouring of sadness at the tragedy gave an indication of the love and respect the rugby world had for Collins.

And as an Ospreys fan, his time at the Liberty Stadium was a highwater mark for the region, which right now feels like a long time away from being bettered. But mainly, it was the character of man himself and not just his immense playing ability that shone through.

Collins was, like fellow hard man and sometime South Wales resident Brian Lima, born in Apia, Samoa, though he moved to the suburb of Porirua, north of Wellington in New Zealand when he was young.

Not only was he born and educated in two rugby heartlands, but among his cousins were Tana Umaga, who would later be his captain in an All Blacks shirt.

With rugby in his blood, he moved quickly through the New Zealand age grades. Aged 18 he led Northern United RFC, better known just as Norths, in Porirua, reportedly becoming the youngest captain of a senior club rugby team anywhere in the world.

Collins was voted player of the tournament when the ‘Baby Blacks’ won the World Junior Championships in 1999. Within two years he was a regular for the Hurricanes in Wellington and became the first player from that U-19 side to become a full All Black.

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New Zealand rugby is not short of giants, but the 6’3”, 17st 2 lb Collins, who regularly sported bleached blonde hair, cut an imposing figure.

He had the biggest biceps in the All Blacks squad, with a 52 cm circumference – the same size as Arnold Schwarzenegger had at his peak of bodybuilding. So big were his ‘pythons’, Collins actually had to work to reduce their size as they were beginning to interfere with his ability to tackle people properly.

His tackling was ferocious, and YouTube is full of clips of his ‘greatest hits’, with Colin Charvis, Sebastien Chabal, Thinus Delport and Nathan Sharpe among those having their own x-rated videos of their encounters with Collins.

Tana Umaga explained the lengths to which opponents would go to avoid a close encounter with his cousin: “Players understand that when you’re playing against Jerry Collins, you’ve always got to know where he is because you don’t want to look up and find yourself carting the ball straight into his channel. Teams are good at making up plays that keep their ball-carriers away from him.”

Collins was named as All Black captain for two matches at the 2007 World Cup, standing in for regular Richie McCaw, but a quarter-final defeat to France would be the last of his 48 caps.

In May 2008 he announced he was retiring from international rugby and headed to Europe to continue playing, joining Toulon for a year, then heading to south Wales to link up with the Ospreys.

The past as they say is another country, and the Ospreys at this time were still able to welcome players from the top tier of world rugby, but the arrival of a 28-year-old All Black, still in the prime of his playing career, was a major coup.

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He made an immediate impact, was voted Players’ Player of the Year in his first season, and played in the team that won the inaugural PRO12 final against Leinster in 2010.

Wales and Lions full-back Lee Byrne was a teammate at the Ospreys and became a close friend of Jerry’s during his time in south Wales.

Their first meeting might not have immediately marked them out as future pals, as Byrne  recalls during an interview for this book: “I was making my debut for Wales, against New Zealand in 2005 at the Millennium Stadium.

“I’d just come off the bench and got the ball off Stephen Jones for my first touch, then suddenly I was flat on my back! I’d been absolutely blindsided by Jerry. I was seeing stars as this scary-looking fella with the bleach-blonde hair stood over me.

“I got up and he patted me on the head. ‘Next time step, bro,’ he said. I said, ‘I ain’t got a step mate’, he laughed and he ran off to tackle someone else.”

“Then when he joined the club it gave everyone a lift. Even the seasoned pros, thought wow, that’s Jerry Collins. And everyone raised their game accordingly” added Byrne.

Leaving south Wales in 2011, his next stop was Yamaha Júbilo in Japan. Before a spell away from rugby, working as a security guard in Canada, before returning to the game with Narbonne in France.

He had met and married his wife, Alana Madill, whilst living in Canada and they were proud parents of a ten-week-old daughter, Ayla, when on the night of 5 June 2015, the family suffered a fatal road accident near Beziers in the south of France.

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Returning late at night from a function, their car veered across the road and into a barrier before being struck by a bus. Collins died protecting his daughter by throwing himself across her car seat as the bus impacted.

The driver of the bus pulled Ayla out of the wreckage, but no one else would survive the accident. Ayla may never have gotten to know her father, but his immense legacy will live on.

Jerry Collins was a truly remarkable player, a hard nut who could make even the most adept of opponents doubt themselves. His shuddering tackles, huge hits and big smile, sometimes all at the same time, proved to be his trademark.

He was fearless and brave, a trait that would ultimately save his daughter’s life. On and off the pitch he would always make his presence felt, and in the time-honoured rugby tradition, which can sometimes stray into cliché, but in Collins’ case was true, he’d brutally batter you for 80 minutes, then buy you a beer in the clubhouse afterwards.

Whilst he was a professional era player, I don’t think he would have minded playing a decade or two earlier.

This is an abridged version of the chapter on Jerry Collins in Hard Men of Rugby, published on 16th October by Y Lolfa and now available to pre-order through all good independent bookshops, Waterstones and Amazon. With a foreword from Nigel Owens, the book also includes profiles of Brian Lima, Wayne Shelford, Colin Meads, Trevor Brennan, Bakkies Botha, Jacques Burger, Sébastien Chabal, Martin Johnson and many more.


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