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Farewell, Jerry Collins

Husband, father and All Black hero, Jerry Collins will be missed.
Jerry Collins

As the tributes flowed in from around the world for All Black legend Jerry Collins, the people of his adopted home city of Narbonne, France, silently marched through the streets in his honour. Leading the sea of orange jerseys, representing Jerry’s second division side, a fan held a picture of the 34-year-old and his wife Alana Madill, who was killed alongside him in a horror car crash.

The couple’s baby girl Ayla, who was with them, remained in a critical condition fighting for her life in Lapeyronie Hospital in Montpellier when the Weekly went to print.

To his friends and family, the blindside flanker often referred to as “The Hitman” or “The Terminator” was revelling in his new roles as a doting dad and a loving husband. Just before the car accident, the young family were at a function in Perpignan for retiring Samoan rugby player Henry Tuilagi, where former All Black captain Jerry proudly showed off his beautiful baby girl, his wide grin a sure sign that he was truly happy.

Jerry was in the back seat of the car with Ayla as the couple travelled home in the early hours of Friday morning, with 34-year-old Canadian Alana behind the wheel. Investigators are still trying to piece together why their car hit a barrier on the busy six-lane highway, ending up in the path of an oncoming tourist bus.

Now the couple’s families are focusing firmly on three-month-old Ayla, whose cries from the crumpled vehicle alerted the driver of the bus  that she was still alive. Alana’s sister, Brenna Smith, was the first family member at her niece’s bedside and was soon joined by their parents, who travelled from their home in Alberta, where Jerry and Alana first met 18 months ago.

Friends of Alana say the Kiwi sports star – who, at the time, was taking a break from his sporting career to work as a security guard at a mine – swept her off her feet. Alana was working as a project manager for a construction company at the time and friends describe her as beautiful – inside and out – someone who was always planning her next big adventure.

Although she had never planned on having children until she met Jerry, they tell of her joy when she discovered she was carrying Ayla. Their wedding photos, also taken in December last year, showcase their happiness, with Alana’s growing tummy just visible underneath her wedding dress – a flicker of excitement on both of their faces.

Ayla Ruth Collins was born in Canada in March and by all accounts, Alana was a natural mum. One of the very last photos she posted on her Facebook page was of her daughter in her arms.

The two sides of Jerry Collins were also posted on Facebook shortly before he died. A photo posted of him holding Ayla shows what a gentle father he was. And a video of him performing a haka is a reminder of the rugby great Kiwis knew and loved.

His former team- mates, including Piri Weepu, Sonny Bill Williams and Jonah Lomu have paid tribute to the powerhouse loose forward. Rugby commentator Keith Quinn offered another insight in a diary entry after the All Blacks’ 2003 Rugby World Cup defeat against Australia. The then broadcaster was angry when All Blacks management thrust a 23-year-old Jerry in front of a TV camera rather than fronting themselves.

He wrote: ”A battered and scuffed Jerry Collins emerges from the dressing room and stands glumly in front of the cameras. He is shirtless and shaking; his hand repeatedly plays across his face. He might be wiping sweat from his brow but instead I wonder, is it tears? Young Collins can hardly raise his eyes off his feet. In the manner of so many of our delightful but shy Polynesian people, quite simply, he looks ashamed.”

It has also emerged that before he died, Jerry offered his own insight into how he felt about another well-liked Kiwi – broadcaster John Campbell. After hearing Campbell Live was under review, he emailed John to thank him for visiting him in a Japanese jail in 2013 after he was arrested for carrying a knife in public. Jerry told him, “God must love great people, that’s why he makes so few and you, my friend, are one of them.”

So many could use that phrase to describe Jerry, from his former teachers at Wellington’s St Patrick’s College, who say his sharp mind not only helped his rugby career but earned him an A Bursary, to his rivals on the field, who’d shake at his size, but respect his fairness. Then there are the people who were lucky enough to have him stop to help them, buy them a coffee, or have a chat and a joke, and flash them that unforgettable smile.

Why the Weekly loved Jerry…

Editor Fiona Fraser remembers accompanying Jerry, along with fellow All Blacks Byron Kelleher and Joe Rokocoko, on an awareness-raising trip to Fiji in September 2006.

“My heart stopped when I heard of Jerry’s death – and almost instantly, one memory sprang to mind. It was of Jerry, surrounded by kids, in the village of Narere – a struggling community outside of Suva, Fiji, supported by Save the Children.

I’d been asked to accompany Jerry, Byron and Joe as part of a story for the Weekly – I’d never met these guys before and I was a bit nervous about how they’d react to a journalist sticking a dictaphone in their faces. I needn’t have been concerned. They were all fantastic to work with, and what I recall about Jerry in particular is his warmth and cheeky humour.

One evening, we were invited to a reception at the New Zealand High Commission – I guess Jerry wasn’t one for pomp and circumstance because a couple of us ended up down the back of the garden with him, with a lovely bottle of red, laughing and having a good old chinwag. His down-to-earth nature and humanity – with everyone he met – will remain my best memory of Jerry.”

Anastasia Hedge

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