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Jerry Collins: Tributes pour in for All Blacks star

By Duncan Bech

Jerry Collins has been remembered as the epitome of a rugby player and an All Black as tributes poured in following the death of the former New Zealand forward.

Collins and his wife Alana Madill died in a car accident near the town of Beziers in southern France in the early hours of Friday morning. The couple's baby daughter Ayla was also left in a critical condition after the collision with a bus.

The popular 34-year-old - revered as one the sport's true hardmen - played 48 times for the All Blacks in a seven-year international career that spanned the 2003 and 2007 World Cups.

Former All Blacks skipper Sean Fitzpatrick first encountered Collins when the Samoa-born back row was a teenager and having managed him at under-21 level, he came to know a man whose relentless ferocity as a player was offset by the warmth and compassion he displayed away from the pitch.

"Jerry was a man in a boy's body at that age and epitomised everything a rugby player and All Blacks should be. He will be remembered fondly," Fitzpatrick 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."

A player described by former England scrum-half Mat Dawson as the "Jonah Lomu of the forwards" retired from international rugby after New Zealand's quarter-final exit from the 2007 World Cup.

In one of the great rugby stories, he took the field alongside star-struck amateur team-mates in a match for Barnstaple's development XV after spending the aftermath of France 2007 with friends in north Devon.

The following month he wore a pair of red Barnstaple socks when playing for the Barbarians against South Africa at Twickenham.

"I think he retired from international rugby too early. There was a lot of fallout from that World Cup in 2007 when the All Blacks were knocked out in Cardiff," Fitzpatrick said.

"He had decided it was time to move on. He was very much his own man, as he showed when he played for Barnstaple, turning up and pulling their jersey on. He could have played many, many more games for the All Blacks."

Collins was among the first wave of rugby superstars to join Toulon and once his season on the south coast of France had been completed in 2009, he departed for the Ospreys and was subsequently named their player of the year for 2009-10.

A two-year spell in Japan for Yamaha Jubilo followed before he signed for his final club in January, heading to French second division side Narbonne.

Collins made his debut for the Hurricanes in 2001 - the same year he made his All Blacks bow - and the Wellington-based team held a minute's silence before their game against the Highlanders in Napier on Friday night.

The Ospreys paid tribute to a player who served them with distinction from 2009 to 2011.

"He was his own man, a true individual, and a giant of the world game," a statement released by the Welsh region said.

"Jerry made a huge impact during his short time in an Ospreys jersey and will be sadly missed by everybody in rugby, his family and friends. RIP JC."

Collins' long-term manager Tim Castle released a statement on behalf of the family.

"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," Castle said.

"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."

All Blacks enforcer who loved rugby

When delivered by one of rugby's gnarliest figures, the description of Jerry Collins as an opponent best avoided fittingly summarises a player universally admired as one of the sport's genuine hardmen.

In the words of decorated former New Zealand captain Sean Fitzpatrick, the back row forward was as "tough as old boots" and "epitomised everything an All Black should be".

But it is a story that unfolded outside the theatre of international rugby that reveals the true character of a man whose love for the sport ran bone deep .

In the weeks after New Zealand's scarring exit from the 2007 World Cup, Collins spent time with friends in north Devon and having conducted a coaching session with youngsters at Barnstaple RFC, he accepted a request to play for their second XV the following day.

The All Blacks flanker, whose reputation had been forged on his ferocious defence, duly boarded the team bus to Newton Abbott before lining up at number eight in the red and white of Barnstaple.

His star-struck team-mates were in awe, among them Mark Manley who said "the guy is a living legend and he was calling me by my nickname for the ball - it was the best rugby day ever".

And Collins left a mighty impression on opposition flanker Andrew Breeze, who attempted to tackle the Samoa-born giant - "I thought 'this is your chance to put one of the best flankers in the world on his arse'. He stepped to his left, stepped to his right and was gone."

The unexpected appearance was not an isolated incident as a year later he played a league match for a small club in New Zealand.

Even as a teenager Jerry Collins made his presence felt on the pitch and he was only 20 when he made his Test debut against Argentina, although he was forced to wait two years for his second cap.

Acting as the enforcer and snarling figurehead of the All Blacks pack, he was feared throughout the game for an uncompromising approach.

New Zealand rugby entered a period of deep introspection upon the quarter-final exit of the 2007 World Cup at the hands of France and Collins was among the players criticised.

The following year he announced his international retirement at the age of 26, although Fitzpatrick is among many who felt it was far too soon for him to be lost to the All Blacks.

A nomadic club career taking in spells at Toulon, the Ospreys and Japanese club Yamaha Jubilo followed, before he accepted his final contract at French second division side Narbonne in January.


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