All Blacks, Wales or England: Highlanders star Michael Collins opens up on where his international allegiance lies
Named to start in the home side’s No. 13 jersey, the position he first made a name for himself in as a schoolboy at local rugby nursery Otago Boys’ High School, the 27-year-old will square off against his former teammates for the first time since departing the Auckland franchise.
It was at Eden Park where Collins was handed his first season of Super Rugby experience in 2017, playing a starring role in Tana Umaga’s side from fullback.
Lauded by coaches across the country for his communication and organisational skills from the back, the 27-year-old went on to make 29 appearances for the Blues over the course of three seasons.
During that time, he rode the on-field rollercoaster that players have often experienced during their time with the Blues over the past decade.
For example, in Collins’ debut campaign, he started in his former side’s famous 22-16 win over the British and Irish Lions in a match he describes as one of the most significant of his career.
“I’d probably argue that was one of the bigger games I’ll end up being able to play,” Collins told RugbyPass.
“I guess you just add that whole element of UK crowds and all the touring squad that had come over, and they got a fair few people at Eden Park – Blues supporters too – so for us, the result was just a cap on it.
“The whole build-up and everything, it was awesome actually. It was definitely one of the highlights, up there by a long shot.”
By contrast, Collins scored a consolation try in a 48-21 shellacking to the lowly Sunwolves in sweltering conditions in Tokyo in the very next fixture a month later.
“Getting pumped by the Sunwolves wasn’t great,” he said through a wry laugh.
“The worst thing about that was that I think it was Jerome [Kaino’s] last game, Charlie’s and maybe Steve Luatua’s too, and we just put a pile of dog s*** out there.
“For us to send players like that off, who have done so much work and hard time for the Blues, I think that’s why everyone was so disappointed.”
That doesn’t stop the Otago skipper speaking highly of his spell in Auckland, although one imagines he would relish the chance to put a dent in his old team’s Super Rugby Aotearoa title chances.
The Blues stand as genuine threats to the Kiwi domestic crown this season after enjoying a rich vein of form that sees them sit in second place on the standings, just two points behind the competition-leading Crusaders.
A win for the fourth-placed Highlanders, however, would keep their faint title hopes alive, as they trail the Blues by seven points.
Sunday afternoon’s clash will be the first opportunity for Collins to face off against his mates from up north after he answered a call from the Highlanders last year to help fill the imminent void left by the likes of Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo and Tevita Li in the outside backs.
Ironically, it will be at centre where he will play after impressing in the role as part of a re-jigged backline in his side’s dramatic 33-31 comeback win over the Chiefs a fortnight ago.
It’s a position Collins has only started once in at Super Rugby level despite establishing himself there while at Otago Boys’.
The Queenstown product was then thrust into the Otago set-up in his first year out of school after becoming the only player from the South Island to be picked in the 2011 New Zealand Schools side that featured Ardie Savea, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Ngani Laumape and Patrick Tuipulotu.
While that seems like the natural progression for any young rugby player coming through the ranks in New Zealand, Collins’ career could have taken a vastly different turn in his teenage years.
A week-long visit to the Melbourne Storm, one of the NRL’s most successful clubs, during his final year at school opened the youngster’s eyes to the world of professional sport.
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Despite having never played league, Collins said he believed it was a common career path for young players at the time to join NRL clubs and ply their trade for the now-defunct U20 sides before crossing back over into union.
That made joining the Storm, where he might have played alongside future Blues teammate Matt Duffie, a viable option, but it took a chat with former Otago and Queensland Reds coach Phil Mooney to keep him in the XV-man code.
“That was when it first got serious with what I was trying to do,” Collins said of the invitation extended to him by the Storm.
“I went over to the Storm for a weekend and sort of just saw the facilities and had a run around and stuff.
“Coming from Queenstown and down here, you don’t get access to league much, and I definitely wouldn’t say I grew up wanting to be a league player by any stretch of the imagination.
“I feel like it was quite common, quite a lot of players would go and play U20s and sort of go back and stuff, so I think I probably saw it as more of a pathway to go and play rugby.
“Phil Mooney, I had a bit of a chat with him… and he was just like ‘Look, if you want to play rugby, it’s probably best to play most of your developing years while you’re playing rugby’, which makes sense.
“But it was an awesome experience, even to see how people train over there and how everything’s set up was real good.
“It was a real easy decision to stick down here with Otago.”
That decision has come with a multitude of rewards, as Collins has been involved in two Ranfurly Shield victories over Waikato at different stages of his career.
The first came in 2013, when the Razorbacks ended a 56-year wait to win the Log o’ Wood with a 26-19 win in Hamilton.
Collins then captained the side to their next success in 2018, when they returned to FMG Stadium Waikato to lock the silverware away in the final match of the regular season.
Alongside the Lions victory of 2017, Collins reflects on those results as two of the most notable of his career given the legacy of the Shield and the importance it holds among players and fans alike.
Although he was blessed with team accolades early on in his career, it took some time before Collins achieved the individual recognition he was after.
In fact, it took five seasons of Mitre 10 Cup action before the Blues eventually came calling.
“Second year uni probably got the better of me after [New Zealand] U20s,” Collins said, referring to Dunedin’s infamous student lifestyle.
“Super Rugby was always an aim, but for those few years, I wasn’t achieving what I wanted to, which was frustrating.”
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With a Super Rugby contract proving elusive, a fortuitous call-up to Pro14 outfit Scarlets in 2015 provided Collins with the springboard into full-time professionalism.
Scoring three tries in 16 matches for the Welsh club and gaining exposure in Europe’s Champions Cup validated Collins’ decision to head north for the Kiwi summer as “one of the best things I’ve definitely done in my career.”
“I think going over there [to the Pro14] was definitely a step up from Mitre 10 Cup, and then Champions Cup is another step up from that, so it was really cool.
“I guess that was the first time I’ve been in full professional set-up, day in, day out for a long period of time, so, again, for me, it was just eye-opening really.”
Not only would obtaining a UK passport via his English mother have eased the logistical side of the short-term switch, it also makes him eligible for England selection, while his Welsh grandfather means he is available for Wayne Pivac’s side.
Having worked under Pivac at Scarlets, Collins could well be on the radar of the Kiwi coach and join a number of New Zealanders – a la Gareth Anscombe, Hadleigh Parkes and Willis Halaholo – in the Welsh set-up.
It isn’t uncommon for Kiwis to don the red rose of England either – just ask Willi Heinz.
Like any professional player, the prospect of playing internationally is the ultimate goal, but, being eligible for three different countries, Collins remains coy on his test ambitions.
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“It was one of those things where I don’t want to cross anything off,” he said when asked where his allegiance lies.
“But, probably for the next couple of years for me, it’s just about getting to a good place with a good environment and contributing that way, and then whatever happens happens.”
With his Highlanders deal expiring at the end of this season, where Collins lands next will be a strong indication to the answer of that question.
“It is a one-year deal, and to be honest, I couldn’t tell you what will happen next year, but I will probably want to look for something more settled for the next wee while,” he told RugbyPass.
“I think I’m probably at a time where I can make a decision on the next few years as long as it’s the right sort of situation, team and environment sort of thing.
“I think for me, it’s just about playing some footy coming up for the Highlanders and Otago, and if you play well enough, you create some options, get a bit of leverage and you can pick which is best.”
If he can maintain the sort of form that has made him one of the most reliable figures at the Highlanders this season, there will be leverage aplenty for Collins to work with.
For now, though, playing his former side for the team that represents his home region in the position where it all started awaits at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Sunday.
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