The Hitman and Wax: Gone but never forgotten

10:30 AM BST

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The All Blacks had a reunion the night before the first Test against the British & Irish Lions to mark their 3-0 series victory 12 years ago. They honoured those around them, those who came before them and those who couldn’t be there.

The 2005 lot would have reminisced about their success over Sir Clive Woodward’s side, and their place in the rich history of those who pulled on the famous black shirt against the tourists. But two players who featured in the series and started in the back-row in the third Test were sorely missed. Back on July 9, 2005, in Auckland, at blindside was Jerry Collins and wearing No. 8 was Sione Lauaki.

One of the key mantras and focuses of the All Blacks is around legacy; it encapsulates the weight of history from those who have worn the silver fern before them, but also focuses on their own personal legacy in the game, with their families, friends and for New Zealand. Both Jerry and Sione leave behind stories of figures who played the sport for the love of it, were trailblazers in their own particular manner and friends nursing their loss through memories of joy both on and off the field.

Collins passed away on June 5, 2015. He was a cult hero for the sport and someone who just loved playing rugby. When his friends and family bid farewell to him, Tana Umaga, his cousin and All Blacks teammate, was one pall-bearer with Chris Masoe — Collins was on the stage with him at his wedding — another.

Tana remembers Jerry coming through the ranks at Wellington, the Hurricanes and All Blacks. He was there to witness his cousin taking his first steps in each stage of his career. He remembers how unfazed Jerry was by anything, how he “played and partied hard and did everything for the team”, but had an unwavering work ethic. He believes he was the prototype for the modern blindside but away from the game, he remembers a friend.

Tana Umaga (left) alongside Jerry Collins ahead of an All Blacks Test at Twickenham in 2005. Ross Land/Getty Images

The two played alongside each other at Toulon. Tana had to move out of his house, so he called Jerry. Jerry invited Tana’s family, then with three children, into his house and moved into a single room, letting the Umagas have free reign in the rest of the property. He was incredibly generous.

There are the tales from when he was at the Ospreys that he was watching rugby in a local club and found they had a small screen, so he went out and bought them a new giant plasma television. Then there was the time he played for local club side Barnstaple’s second XV, and then wore their socks the next time he ran out for the Barbarians.

“He’d play a Test one day and would go back and play for a club next if he could,” Tana tells ESPN. “Training was a means to an end, it enabled him to play. There’d be thousands of those stories.

“I was fortunate enough to be around most of his key moments. He was good to have by your side on the field. He was a soldier who was great by your side. I always felt he was there to look after me.”

Piri Weepu (left), Jerry Collins and Chris Masoe share a laugh during All Blacks training in 2007. Ross Land/Getty Images

Chris visited Jerry’s grave at Whenua Tapu Cemetery in Porirua, the day before the Lions played the Hurricanes. Piri Weepu, another great friend of Jerry’s, also paid him a visit in the graveyard that lies 12 kilometres from the ground now known as Jerry Collins Stadium, when he arrived back from his European adventures.

Piri remembers watching Jerry playing for Northern United against Wainuimata despite being contracted to the Hurricanes at the time. Piri did the same when he was picked for the All Blacks, but one day Jerry was caught and Piri stopped.

Chris and Jerry were extremely close friends, with Chris winning Jerry’s respect in an early run-in between the two.

“The first time I met Jerry was in 1997/98,” Chris Masoe tells ESPN. “We were playing central region rugby and that’s how I met Jerry Collins.

“At the time Jerry was the captain at 18 with the school rugby team and all I heard was about people talking about Jerry. I was fresh from the island. As a boxer I never felt anything. Even at my wedding he told the story where everyone was scared of him, but I wasn’t. I went straight for him, hit him on to the ground, and from the ground he looked at me and said ‘I will get you’. That’s how we became friends.”

Shane Williams tries to haul in Sione Lauaki during the Lions series in New Zealand in 2005. Phil Walter/Getty Images

Sione Lauaki died on February 12, 2017, after battling renal problems. He won a total of 20 New Zealand caps, but the All Blacks got a taste of his raw power and skill when they faced the Pacific Islanders team in 2004. Sione — whose nickname was ‘Wax’ — caused them all sorts of trouble, also grabbing a try for his efforts.

He would make his All Blacks debut against Fiji in June, 2005, and then feature from the bench in Tests one and two against the Lions, and start the third.

“I don’t know if he spoke two or three words to me — that was normal as I was an older statesman and the younger players didn’t want to speak too much. They saw me as a grouchy older man,” Tana remembers. “He looked after those close to him.”

Current All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster was Sione’s head coach at the Chiefs. He remembers Sione’s incredible skillset, the time he sent Richie McCaw flying with a hand-off, and when he won a match against the Blues in the last moments of the game as he faked a drop-goal, sold them a dummy and then ran around Mils Muiliana to score.

“I know the first year we picked him in the Chiefs in 2004, he took our franchise by storm,” Ian Foster tells ESPN. “He came in and did what other players couldn’t do. He made something out of nothing.

“He was fast, he was powerful, he was skilful and he really brought a lot to whatever team he played for. While you felt he never really mastered the All Black game, international rugby probably required a bit more discipline than he was used to — with his preparation and training — he was a free spirit in those areas.

“I probably have a few more grey hairs from coaching him. He was a bit of a rough diamond and you had to sit on him to ensure he trained hard. But he was a special man.”

Liam Messam (left) and Sione Lauaki were best mates. Ross Land/Getty Images

Sione’s best friend was Chiefs and All Blacks flanker Liam Messam; they were best man at each other’s wedding.

“Wax was my big brother,” Liam Messam tells ESPN. “He took me under his wing, and I took him under mine. We played for the Chiefs together. He showed me the way on the football field to never take a backward step. He taught me to play for your mates, and to always have their back.

“He was one of the most talented players I’ve played with, he struggled with his fitness but you can see why now. He always gave 100 percent. No matter what his fitness was, he did it for the team. For me he was a great Chief, and he made me proud of who I am and who I played for.”

The two leave loved ones behind, but they treasure the memories as teammates, as family, friends and role models. Legacy is a subjective thing, but in Sione and Jerry, they leave behind important chapters in the story of the All Blacks and in the hearts of those who knew them.

“We honour the people who have been before who’ve put everything they can into the All Blacks jersey and who are not there anymore,” Ian Foster says. “It’s a sobering reminder that the jersey is not ours, it’s something that this team has been told to look after as we need to leave it in a better place as there are people before us who have done just that.

“I didn’t know Jerry that well but he left a massive impact on people, and in Wellington it’s left a huge hole. It’s the same with Sione up our way. It’s not about their legacy really to the All Blacks, it’s more about their legacy to their family and friends. That’s what we all miss the most.”

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