TRIBUTES have been paid to former New Zealand rugby international Jerry Collins and his wife who died in a car crash in France.
Collins and his wife Alana Madill died in a car accident near the town of Beziers in southern France in the early hours of Friday morning. The couple's baby daughter Ayla was also left in a critical condition after the collision with a bus.
The popular 34-year-old - revered as one the sport's true hardmen - played 48 times for the All Blacks in a seven-year international career that spanned the 2003 and 2007 World Cups.
“The news has shocked us all and our thoughts are with Jerry and Alana’s families at this terribly sad time,” New Zealand general manager Neil Sorensen said.
Brian O’Driscoll was among those first to pay tribute to the powerhouse backrow.
“Terrible news about Jerry Collins & his wife in France. Thoughts are with his family,” he posted on his Twitter account.
Munster rugby said on their Twitter account: “Very sad news about @AllBlacks Jerry Collins & wife this morning. Thoughts and prayers for their daughter, family & friends.”
Former All Blacks skipper Sean Fitzpatrick first encountered Collins when the Samoa-born back row was a teenager and having managed him at under-21 level, he came to know a man whose relentless ferocity as a player was offset by the warmth and compassion he displayed away from the pitch.
"Jerry was a man in a boy's body at that age and epitomised everything a rugby player and All Blacks should be. He will be remembered fondly," Fitzpatrick told BBC Radio Five.
Terrible news about Jerry Collins & his wife in France. Thoughts are with his family.— Brian O'Driscoll (@BrianODriscoll) June 5, 2015
Emergency services attend the scene of a crash involving a car belonging to All Blacks rugby player Jerry Collins on the highway near Beziers, southern France
"He became an All Black at a very young age (20) and went on to wear the jersey with pride. He was as tough as old boots on the field, but a loving man and very caring off the field.
"He was the nicest guy you would meet, but not someone you'd want to play against. We say good men make great All Blacks and he was a very, very good man."
A player described by former England scrum-half Mat Dawson as the "Jonah Lomu of the forwards" retired from international rugby after New Zealand's quarter-final exit from the 2007 World Cup.
In one of the great rugby stories, he took the field alongside star-struck amateur team-mates in a match for Barnstaple's development XV after spending the aftermath of France 2007 with friends in north Devon.
The following month he wore a pair of red Barnstaple socks when playing for the Barbarians against South Africa at Twickenham.
"I think he retired from international rugby too early. There was a lot of fallout from that World Cup in 2007 when the All Blacks were knocked out in Cardiff," Fitzpatrick said.
"He had decided it was time to move on. He was very much his own man, as he showed when he played for Barnstaple, turning up and pulling their jersey on. He could have played many, many more games for the All Blacks."
Collins was among the first wave of rugby superstars to join Toulon and once his season on the south coast of France had been completed in 2009, he departed for the Ospreys and was subsequently named their player of the year for 2009-10.
A two-year spell in Japan for Yamaha Jubilo followed before he signed for his final club in January, heading to French second division side Narbonne.
Collins made his debut for the Hurricanes in 2001 - the same year he made his All Blacks bow - and the Wellington-based team held a minute's silence before their game against the Highlanders in Napier on Friday night.
The Ospreys paid tribute to a player who served them with distinction from 2009 to 2011.
"He was his own man, a true individual, and a giant of the world game," a statement released by the Welsh region said.
"Jerry made a huge impact during his short time in an Ospreys jersey and will be sadly missed by everybody in rugby, his family and friends. RIP JC."
Collins' long-term manager Tim Castle released a statement on behalf of the family.
"The family and I are distraught at the death of a much-loved son, brother and friend, and his partner Alana, whom I got to know recently," Castle said.
"I have been in touch with Jerry's father Frank and other members of his family who are in Samoa at the moment. It's obviously a terribly difficult time for them and together with New Zealand rugby we are doing all we can to support them.
"I have also been in touch with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who are also doing everything they can to ensure that baby Ayla is getting all the care and support she needs. I am very grateful for their support.
"The family would also like to thank everyone for their messages of support and have asked for privacy at this time."