In Depth

Jerry Collins: All Black 'Hitman' who turned out for Barnstable

Legendary flanker and his wife killed in crash on notorious stretch of French motorway, baby daughter critical

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The world of rugby union is in shock after the death of one of the sport's biggest and most colourful stars. Former All Black flanker Jerry Collins, capped 48 times by New Zealand, was killed alongside his wife Alana in a horrific car accident in southern France. The couple's baby daughter, just four months old, was freed from the wreckage and airlifted to hospital where she remains in a critical condition.

According to reports in the French press, the crash happened in the early hours of Friday morning on the A9 motorway, which links the French Mediterranean coast with Spain. Considered one of the most dangerous motorways in France, there have been numerous fatal accidents on the long, straight and often sparsely populated routes.

It appears that the Collins' car suddenly lost power and stopped on the motorway, where it was hit from behind by a Portuguese tourist bus. The force of the impact hurled the vehicle across the motorway and into the central reservation, killing Collins and his wife instantly.

Collins was one of rugby's most colourful characters, a throwback to the amateur era in many respects, someone who played hard on the pitch and enjoyed himself off it. A huge man, Collins stood 6ft 3 and weighed 17 stones and his tackling prowess was legendary. He was nicknamed 'Hitman', but he also enjoyed being likened to a pint of Guinness on account of the bleached blond hair he sported at the height of his career.

He came to prominence with the Wellington Hurricanes in the late 1990s, and won his first cap with New Zealand in 2001 aged just 20. He was a regular with the All Blacks for the next six years, captaining them on several occasions, including twice in the 2007 World Cup.

That tournament marked the end of his international career. Still just 26, Collins decided to see the world and capitalise on his talent even though playing outside New Zealand meant he was no longer available for the All Blacks. He joined Toulon on a lucrative one-year deal and then moved to Wales, where he spent two seasons with the Ospreys before moving to Japan's Yamaha Jubilio.

While in Japan Collins was arrested in a department store for carrying a large survival knife. He claimed it was for self-defence after he had been threatened by some Brazilian gangsters, but the police kept him in jail for 11 days, only releasing him after he agreed to pay a fine of ¥150,000.

It wasn't the first time Collins' had surprised the rugby world. In October 2007, a few days after New Zealand's shock exit from the World Cup, he was holidaying in Devon when a local club coach stopped him on the street to invite him to watch a game the following weekend. Collins took up the offer and also agreed to take a coaching session with the Barnstaple RFC Under-13s. When the club asked if they could do anything for him in return, Collins said he wouldn't mind a game, so the next Saturday one of the world's most famous rugby players turned out for Barnstaple 2nd XV against Newton Abbot.

A month later he honoured the club still further when he wore a pair of Barnstable socks as he played for the Barbarians at Twickenham, recalls the North Devon Journal

Collins had just returned to rugby after taking a break in 2014. Signing a short-term deal for French Second Division club Narbonne in January, he had got back into shape and finished the season strongly, helping the club avoid relegation. He was expected to extend his deal with Narbonne into next season.

Tributes to Collins flooded the social media networks on Friday morning, many from former professional teammates and clubs, but perhaps none captured his character quite like the words of Kevin Squire, the Barnstaple coach who had invited Collins to the club eight years ago. "For the guys that played that day with him is an experience they will never forget," Squires told BBC Sport.

"My overriding feeling from that time was what a terrific fella he was, he was rugby nuts. He was so down to earth, he gave us all advice on the game. His influence on Devon and Barnstaple rugby will never be forgotten."

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