Among the headlines few rugby supporters would ever expect to read – "Twickenham treats Ashton with fairness and respect" for instance, or "Wallaby scrum stands its ground" – is this interesting combination of words: "English celebrate as Collins flies in".
Few players, coaches or administrators north of the equator have ever been pleased to see Jerry Collins, the ferocious New Zealand flanker who can stop a man dead with a sideways glance and cut him in two with a trademark big-hit tackle.
Yet as Collins flew in from All Black country to link up with the Barbarians for tonight's lucrative little runaround with an Ireland XV at Kingsholm – the second of three fixtures in the invitation side's end-of-season tour which started in Belgium at the weekend and ends with a game against England on Sunday – there was no hiding the outpouring of relief at confirmation that he was over here, rather than over there.
Collins planted a small depth charge beneath the All Black hierarchy by announcing hisimmediate withdrawal from all rugby commitments, including the two meetings with the red rose army in Auckland and Christchurch next month. Convinced that he needs a break from the sport – "It's just where I'm at; I know in my heart that it's time to step back," he said before heading for the airport – he is the 11th player from last year's 30-man World Cup squad to walk away from silver-fern duty.
Some, such as the centre Aaron Mauger and the lock Chris Jack, have retired from international rugby and signed long-term contracts with clubs in the English Premiership; others, like the midfielder Luke McAlister, have made the same journey on short-term deals and intend to return home well ahead of the 2011 World Cup.
There is no knowing which camp the 27-year-old Collins intends to join. On the one hand, he is not in the first flush of youth; on the other, he will not be requiring a bus pass any time soon.
"This is something I've thought about for a good while," he said, a few hours after playing in the Wellington-based Hurricanes' loss to the Crusaders in the semi-final of the southern hemisphere's elite Super 14 tournament. "I've played 10 years of provincial rugby for Wellington and it's a pretty hard place to leave, but I've decided it's probably the right time for me to bow out. I haven't signed with anyone else because I wanted to do this the right way with respect to Wellington, the Hurricances and the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. You can't negotiate while you're still contracted so the cupboard is pretty bare at the moment, but I'm sure there's someone out there who will give me a job for a couple of weeks."
Another New Zealander, the 26-year-old rugby league exponent Shontayne Hape, will end a six-year association with Bradford Bulls to join Bath in the latest cross-code experiment at the top end of the domestic game in England. Hape has secured early release from his Bulls contract and agreed a three-year deal with the European Challenge Cup champions, who paid an undisclosed fee for his services.
Capped 14 times by his country in the 13-man game, Hape is seen as a potential replacement for Olly Barkley, who has left the Recreation Ground for a stint with Gloucester. Hape qualifies for England on residency grounds, rather like Lesley Vainikolo, the wing who represented New Zealand at league before breaking into the red rose union side at the start of this year's Six Nations.
"Shontayne has a union background and is no stranger to the game," said Steve Meehan, the Bath coach, yesterday. "He is also used to the pressure and demands that surround sport at this level. He arrives without fanfare or fuss and will go about winning the respect of his club-mates as he works hard at being the best he can be."
Bath were at the forefront of union's raid on rugby league, signing Jason Robinson and Henry Paul on short-term contracts as far back as 1996. However, precious few major cross-code signings have worked out for the best, Robinson being the only unqualified success in the English game. Bath took a more recent punt on Chev Walker and received little in the way of return; Gloucester had their fair share of problems after investing in Paul before failing to make a union player of Karl Pryce; Andy Farrell's flirtation with the England team was mired in controversy; Vainikolo was promoted above his station and has been dropped from the party bound for New Zealand.
The latter has been included in the Baa-Baas' squad for this evening's match, which features two other players no longer in the affections of the England selectors: the Harlequins scrum-half Andy Gomarsall and the Bristol hooker Mark Regan.Reuse content