Battering ram

In the last issue of SA Rugby magazine Jerry Collins reflects on his British and Irish Lions performance and how its secured his place in the All black team. Matt Mcilraith reports.

One of the posers that faced the All Black selectors before the series against the British & Irish Lions was who to play at blindside flank.

Experience and proven big match temperament were always going to be crucial in such a hotly contested series, which is why Jerry Collins was retained on the side of the scrum.

As good as Jerome Kaino might become – and he was impressive on All Black debut against the Barbarians in December last year – time is definitely on the 22 year old’s side, though he still has much to learn. Still it seems incredible to think that at just 24, there is even the possibility that an even younger player might usurp Collins, but such is the state of the New Zealand game.

Rightly or wrongly, players come and go a lot younger now. Get to 28 or 29 and you are considered by some to be practically washed up.

If the All Black selectors had opted to tackle the Lions’ best without the intimidating presence of Collins within their starting line-up, the tourists would most assuredly have thanked them. Not only is Collins arguably the hardest-hitting tackler currently at work on the international circuit, he has matured into a senior player and leader who backs his few words up fully by deed.

The former Wellington City Council rubbish collector raised his half-century of Super 12 caps during the Hurricanes’ 26-24 win over the Waratahs in Wellington in April.

Only his cousin and team skipper Tana Umaga and Taranaki lock Paul Tito had more career games in the Hurricanes jersey than Collins on this year’s playing roster.

Collins has made huge strides in development terms, since making his Super 12 debut as a No 8 four years ago. He’s now firmly established on the blindside flank and is happy to be playing there, after alternating between the side and back of the scrum in each of his first four Super 12 seasons.

It should also not be forgotten that his first 13 Test appearances all came at the back of the All Black scrum, where he was first selected by Wayne Smith and then preferred by John Mitchell to do duty.

‘No 8 is an instinctive position and it takes time to develop and hone the skills to be a natural there,’ former All Black No 8 Zinzan Brooke says. ‘Moving between No 8 and 6 doesn’t make the development process any easier and that’s been one of the biggest challenges for Jerry Collins. It’s a very specialised position and it takes time to develop the instincts for it. That’s one of the reasons I feel he is better suited to staying in one position and playing No 6 at this stage.’

While he has no regrets about the time he spent at the back of the scrum, Collins concedes that switching between the two roles did have its difficulties.

‘Obviously the higher the level it is that you are playing, the more analytical your opponents become, working out your weaknesses, and I hadn’t been playing that much at No 8 before Mitch asked me to play there,’ Collins says.

‘But it was one of those situations where I was hardly going to say no. I was obviously going to take a single digit number [the No 8 jersey] rather than a double digit one on the reserves bench.’

In confirming that Collins’s immediate playing future with the Hurricanes lies on the blindside flank, Cooper says that previous experience has made the All Black a more complete player.

‘He’s made a big step up from last year, in fact he’s stepped up every year since I’ve been involved with the Hurricanes,’ says Collins’s coach at the franchise since 2003.

‘What we’re seeing from Jerry now is a product of his experience. He’s had over 50 games in the Super 12 and has matured as a player. We’re getting the rewards of that maturity.’ While Collins has always been renowned for the rugged nature of his defence, there’s a lot more to the 2005 model than just hard tackling.

His error rate has dropped away, he is passing the ball a lot more frequently in tight quarters and is also taking an increased role in the on-field decision making process.

‘While his defensive game remains outstanding, his ball carrying has improved and he’s using a lot more of his options,’ Cooper says.
For his part, Collins downplays suggestions of a sudden improvement in his skill set.

‘It’s not so much that I didn’t have some of the skills people are talking about now, it’s come down more to how the coaches I’ve had have wanted me to play,’ he says. ‘A lot of my coaches before preferred to use me in a different way, as a bit of a battering ram, I guess, so that’s what I’ve gone out there and done. I’ve always believed that I can off-load the ball well and slide past tackles rather than trying to bang into people and take them out of the play in the contact area, but it’s not something that’s always been asked of me in the past. I guess if you are asked to do the same sort of job all of the time, it’s only natural that some of your other skills will go on the back burner.’

That might have been the case in the past, but Collins is now being encouraged in his development of a wider game, by both the All Black and Hurricanes’ coaches.

‘The All Blacks want to see it and so do we,’ Cooper explains. ‘We want him to off-load more. He can do that really well. He can also hit and spin in the tackle and fend, or he can simply go through tacklers using his strength. Jerry’s got such huge size and power.

Perhaps in the past he was guilty of limiting his options by just relying on that and trying to go through people. If you do that, you become predictable as a ball carrier and are an easy target. Jerry’s realising that and he’s now using his full range of weapons.’
The return to a more complete game has not come without a lot of dedication and hard work.

Although he refused to concede any frustration, despite losing out to Jono Gibbes’s greater line-out prowess during last year’s domestic Test programme, where he started just twice, Collins admits he enjoyed the opportunity the NPC provided, allowing him to reinvent his game.

‘After playing for the All Blacks last year, I took on board what the new coaches wanted from me and came back to Wellington and looked to start playing the way they wanted,’ Collins says. ‘I had a chat to [Wellington NPC coach] John Plumtree and he was very supportive.

“Plum” backed me to change the way I play and allowed me to do a bit of everything, hitting it up, setting the ball up and off-loading. It was great to have that support and I really enjoyed my time playing for Wellington last year.’

The transition into a more well rounded blindside flanker didn’t come as any surprise to Cooper, who is happy to declare the Collins training ethic is the best he has encountered in the game.

‘He works very hard off the field and is providing leadership to our younger players in that area too, probably without even realising it,’ Cooper says. ‘His dedication is something they can all aspire to and seek to replicate.’

The hard work was rewarded when Collins started the All Blacks’ Tests in Rome and Paris on last year’s European tour, teaming up with his provincial captain and good mate Rodney So’oialo in the All Black loose trio for the first time during the 45-6 execution of the French.

With that performance being the benchmark for the team to aspire to this year and Collins having performed so well in that game and since, it’s hard to see him not figuring prominently again in an All Black jersey this season.

‘There was a lot of pressure in the lead up to that Test. It was make or break for the tour, but it was great how all of the guys responded,’ Collins says.

‘The coaches put together a package for that tour that worked in terms of the way we played and it was enjoyable to be part of it.’