Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
8 June 2015
Many warm words have been written in recent days about the life of Jerry Collins. However some of the tributes have been of the once-over-lightly variety. This one is written by a Kiwi who prefers to be called 'Inky.' - nothing more nothing lees. I know who Inky is by name and I'll vouch for him as a rugby authority. I liked his tribute so much, with all its excellent new information about Jerry, that I thought i'd run again it here. I know I've kinda pinched it, but thanks Inky old mate!
by 'INKY' from here;
The death of Jerry Collins at age 34 only strengthens our emotional connections to All Black history. We can still hear the winces of pain his tackles would wring from ball carriers and see the trail he left of groaning men twisted on the wet grass after his ministrations. He cleaned out like a horizontal piledriver, hit as hard in the eightieth minute as in the first and set the whole team attitude between 2001 and 2007. Tributes are pouring in from his test opponents, men proud to have had their knees hyper-extended trying to get past him or their clavicles broken trying to stop him.
The tackles he was famous for, the ones which had all sleeping dogs within a mile of the stadium raising their heads and looking about nervously, are what first spring to mind. He also had finesse to go with the strength. If someone miraculously hung onto the ball, he’d plant them in his garden for another flanker to pluck.
The real Collins story, however, is more about a genuinely humble man than it is of the international rugby superstar. He was a club man at heart. He will be most sadly missed at Norths in Porirua, the club to which he returned (and sneakily played for on most visits home), and at St. Pat’s Town, where he played First XV and made the NZ Schoolboys side three years running.
His notoriously ruthless father Frank was completely unforgiving of errors. The sometimes public hard knocks of parental discipline were a vital building block in the make-up of the bone-rattling player who made his international debut at the age of twenty, and key ingredients to what kept him both grounded and feared after he gave the black jersey away.
The dark side of an attacking scrum was no place for the faint-hearted when Collins was playing, as Scarlets captain David Lyon can attest. He proudly tells about being angry at his young halfback Tavis Knoyle for calling blind at White Rock in 2010 and “getting his skipper’s ribcage rearranged”. Knoyle obviously thought there was room for him to slip inside the winger, but never got the ball because Collins had lowered the boom on Lyon, gotten to his feet and been the first man trampling him in the turnover that led to a counter-attacking try.
Collins was holidaying in Devon in November 2007 after the World Cup when the Barnstaple coach spotted him and asked if he would come and host a junior coaching session that Saturday. He surprised everyone by turning up. Asked how he might be repaid, Collins famously said “I just want to play rugby.” The following week, to the horror of the Newton Abbot blindside flanker, he was in the Barnstaple 2nd XV. Adidas and the NZRU were not happy but Jerry’s scant regard for contractual small print was already well known.
He wore Barnstaple socks in his Barbarians game that year against the Springboks at Twickenham, but he wasn’t the only Baabaa in that side angering paymasters by turning out. Captain Mark Regan surrendered his match fee afterwards, his club at odds with the Union, Jason Robinson was another of the currently unattached, while Joe Rokocoko and Ma’a Nonu just thought if Jerry was okay to play they were too. After Jake White and the World Champions were given a 5-22 towelling, the once-tired Barbarians brand had been reinvigorated over the course of a wonderfully exciting eighty minutes, its maverick spirit was reborn and the lemons were soggy in a few gin and tonics.
After the 2007 debacle against France in Cardiff, Collins wasn’t exactly weighing his future, he just needed some time on a beach to relax while his cartilage reknitted. But in doing so he found himself looking at the two-month wait before Hurricanes pre-season and thinking it was too long. He was a self aware addict and Barnstaple was the first opportunity for him to lace up the gladiatorial boots again.
After the Hurricanes season of 2008, and having had not only the odd testy discussion with Graham Henry about rotation policy but also with the competing agents who wanted to manage his professional career, he joined his cousin Tana Umaga at Toulon. Umaga had just dragged RC Toulonnais up from second to first division and Collins was crucial in the fight to avoid relegation in 2008-9, that bloodiest of seasons. He would have signed a longer and more lucrative deal with that club if he’d been interested in such minor details. He accepted a two-year contract with Ospreys and was their player of the year in 2009-10. In 2011 he joined Yamaha Jubilo in Japan.
This was when his legend began to stretch in strange directions. He was arrested for “brandishing” a knife in the underground level of a Japanese department store. Mystery surrounds how the police were alerted. Collins explained to them that he carried it because he felt threatened after an incident near his home earlier that day. He was quickly released but too late to prevent the instant circulation of rumours about Yakuza gambling debts and other equally preposterous theories. Carrying knives for self-defence in Japan is allowed but Collins’ cooking knife was 2cm longer than the legal limit.
It is well-known among all his closest associates that he confined violence exclusively to the rugby environment. In 2006 he did give Hurricanes team-mate Lome Fa’atau a hiding for misbehaviour in a Bloemfontein nightclub, presumably because Fa’atau’s mother wasn’t there personally to spank him with a sasa, but that was the only recorded instance of anything physical happening off the field.
He was probably not influenced by an offer of less money during his contract negotiations following the knife incident, because his attempt at quitting the rugby habit saw him taking a day job with a security firm in Canada. Family planning changed his mind. He was back in France with a four-month old daughter and signed as Narbonne’s medical joker when his girlfriend crashed their car on the Beziers highway.
Jerry’s character was not exactly complex. Like all the hard men we revere, his occasional blunders in etiquette were both forgivable and funny. We still fondly remember his conspicuous pint-of-Guinness haircut because of course it didn’t make the point of his shoulder any harder to avoid. When he was caught short and had to firetruck the pitch in Christchurch, he was as discreet as possible about it and it was revealed later that he had been in reasonably deep discussion with young reserve loosie Chris Masoe before running out, perhaps missing his last opportunity for more private bladder relief.
What I recall most clearly from that game is the schooling he gave Rocky Elsom. After the 12-32 drubbing Rocky became a better player and one of Collins’ most respected opponents. Many others ended up in the changing sheds icing their balls and spitting up blood before half-time.
There were, however, plenty of things about Jerry that didn’t fit his surface reflection. Not many people know how well-educated his sisters Brenda and Helen are, for instance, or that when he captained the All Blacks against the Pumas in Buenos Aires he gave a significant part of his after-match speech in Spanish. The viewers watching on television would seldom see him taking a knee for a quick prayer between haka and kick-off. Those details and plenty of others may or may not flesh out the legend when his family and close friends decide how or whether to answer more questions.
He had his critics, all fools and some downright racist, who called him one-dimensional even after he developed a pass both ways, a swerve, worked on his pace and even put the ball constructively on the toe now and then. But his rugby legacy of physicality and presence is most important. The pain tax he collected from the opposition was exactly what was missing when we tried the twin openside experiment against Ireland in 2006. The following year, after sending Sebastian Chabal to the sheds in the second test at the Railyard (won 61-10) French players lined up to have their photo taken with him on the battlefield.
Aged 27 when he broke with the All Blacks and moved overseas, it was clear he could have played many more tests for his country but also clear that he didn’t mind who he played for so long as he played. He died before retiring, which is about the only comfort I can find in his sad loss.
He once said that the physicality was what he was paid for, but added “I’d actually prefer it if the game was a bit more free-flowing and I got the ball in a bit of space with no one in front of me. I’d take that any day.”
[your comments on this if you like; easier to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org ]
[or go straight to Inky himself; email@example.com ]
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