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Welsh-qualified Highlanders star Michael Collins lifts the lid on his move to Ospreys

By Alex McLeod

Trending on RugbyPass

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He might be qualified to play international rugby for Wales, but Highlanders star Michael Collins isn’t listening to the external noise surrounding a possible future in the test arena.

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Talk of the experienced 27-year-old, who also qualifies for England through his mother’s side of the family, donning the famous red jersey has spiked in the wake of last week’s announcement of his two-year deal with PRO14 club Ospreys.

Eligible to play for Wayne Pivac’s side via his Welsh-born grandfather, plenty of media outlets, including this one, were quick to identify Collins’ British heritage upon confirmation of his upcoming move to Swansea.

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After all, the utility back, who can cover the midfield and at fullback, would hardly be the first Kiwi, or foreigner, to be plucked from abroad and make a name for himself as an adopted Welshman.

For example, Tongan-born No 8 Taulupe Faletau and New Zealand-born midfielder Willis Halaholo both featured for Wales in their most recent Six Nations campaign earlier this year.

Other Kiwis, such as ex-Crusaders wing Johnny McNicholl, former Blues and Chiefs playmaker Gareth Anscombe and World Cup midfielder Hadleigh Parkes, have all featured for the Celtic nation in recent years.

It comes as no surprise, then, to see Collins tipped by some to follow in the footsteps of other Welsh-New Zealanders, but the man himself isn’t buying into those suggestions.

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“That’s just an easy headline for media to write, to be honest,” Collins told RugbyPass earlier this week as he prepared for the Highlanders’ long-haul trip to Perth to face the Western Force this weekend.

“Even the last one you wrote, I think it started with something to do with all that stuff, and it’s easy to grab and I understand it’s all part and parcel,” he added, referencing a story published last August.

“I thought the article you wrote was awesome, but it had nothing to do with Wales or England, so I’m just at that side of it.

“For me, it’s just going to play well for Ospreys, trying to contribute to them and see how that goes.”

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Fair enough, then.

But, although Collins is playing down his chances of international selection for Wales, it’s easy to understand why those projections have been made.

Rock solid at all levels of the game in New Zealand, Ospreys have landed themselves an extremely dependable player who has established himself as a superb communicator, distributor, organiser and leader in the backline.

Those traits will become particularly valuable in the PRO14, where it isn’t uncommon for teams to do it tough and grind out gritty wins in the depths of the European winter.

With that in mind, though, the offer to join Ospreys particularly stood out to Collins due to the positive brand of rugby implemented by head coach Toby Booth, something that goes against many preconceptions of Northern Hemisphere rugby.

“I think the coaching set-up is pretty good with Toby there. I looked a bit into him and he seems like he’s got a pretty good culture and I think a lot of players like playing for him, which is a start,” said Collins, who will be joined at the club by Highlanders and Otago teammate Jack Regan.

“They’re a young team, so they’re going to be improving the whole time, but the way they’re trying to play is a bit more positive, and that’s something that appealed.

“I think the way he talked about how the midfielders play and the role he wants them to do is certainly what I want to try and do, as a distributor and an organiser, and impact the game when you can.

“Being in Wales before, it’s a cool place, and that Swansea area is pretty neat, so it all just fitted together and I just thought it was the right move at the time. Time will tell if it is or not.”

As Collins alluded to, this won’t be his first spell in Wales.

After four seasons toiling away in New Zealand’s provincial scene for his beloved Otago, the then-22-year-old set off to Llanelli to join Scarlets on a short-term deal during the 2015-16 season.

Having never previously secured a Super Rugby contract, his time at Parc y Scarlets was his first gig as a full-time professional player.

When he spoke to RugbyPass last year, Collins described his time with Scarlets as “one of the best things I’ve definitely done” as it opened his eyes to what’s required of a full-time professional.

Since then, he went on to play 29 times across three seasons for the Blues, starting from fullback in their famous win over the British and Irish Lions in 2017, and has now amassed 16 caps for the Highlanders since last year.

The former New Zealand Schools and New Zealand U20 representative has also won the Ranfurly Shield three times since his Otago debut as a teenager in 2012, with his two most recent Shield successes coming as captain in 2018 and 2020.

With that much experience to his name, Ospreys fans can expect Collins to feature heavily over the next two years, even if COVID-19 wreaks havoc with cross-border travel in the soon-to-be PRO16, which will feature the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers out of South Africa.

That hasn’t dismayed Collins from opting to pack his bags and move to the other side of the world in the midst of a global pandemic.

It’s a big call given how isolated New Zealand has been from the virus, especially in comparison to the United Kingdom, but Collins is confident he’s made the right decision.

“I don’t think we even understand it over here as much as we probably think we do,” he said.

“I’ve got a brother in London who’s done it pretty tough for the last year or so, so there’s that side of it, and then the other side of it is I didn’t want it to affect your life too much.

“It would have been easy to sit here for a couple of years and try to go in a couple of years when everything is normal, but it’s a risk.

“If it pays off, sweet. If it doesn’t, at least I’ve given it a shot.”

Before all of that, though, there is a Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title to play for with the Highlanders.

After starting in last week’s competition-opening 40-19 drubbing of the Queensland Reds in Dunedin, Collins has again been named to start in the midfield, a position he wants to specialise in, against the Force at HBF Park this weekend.

Trailing the league-leading Blues only by points difference, the Highlanders are already in a strong position to push for their first title since 2015.

The Trans-Tasman round-robin lasts just five weeks before the top two sides play in a one-off final on June 19, meaning every victory is crucial to a team’s championship chances.

Signing off on his Highlanders career with a trophy would be the perfect end to Collins’ time in New Zealand, especially after the franchise’s subpar Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, which was plagued by on-field inconsistency and off-field drama.

“We obviously showed we could foot it with the best with the Crusaders and Blues and the Chiefs. We just lacked consistency,” Collins said of the all-Kiwi league.

“We couldn’t back up two performances, so I guess that’s the opportunity that we’ve managed to create this weekend by beating the Reds.

“We’ve got the opportunity to back it up and have a good performance this week.”

Victory over the Force in front of their boisterous home crowd, however, won’t come easy.

The Chiefs found that out last week when they relied on Domingo Miotti’s unsuccessful sideline conversion attempt after the full-time siren to get them over the line in a tight 20-19 win in Western Australia.

“They were bloody good. I think if you look at them, they’re a bit like us at the Highlanders,” Collins said.

“They’re sort of a bunch of misfits that have come from all other bits of the country and then they come together and they love it, they have a good time, they play for each other, they have an awesome crowd over there, obviously a wicked culture.

“They’ve got a few older heads scattered through, so they’re pretty good in those tight situations, so I guess the way they’re playing is pretty good.”

After this week, home matches against the Melbourne Rebels in Queenstown, where Collins originally hails from, and Waratahs in Dunedin are followed by an away trip to the Brumbies in Canberra.

Should the Highlanders fail to reach the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final, those fixtures against the Rebels and Waratahs may be Collins’ final matches on Kiwi soil as he won’t be available for Otago’s NPC season.

“I’m going over in late July. I’ve got a brother over there in London at the moment. I haven’t seen him in a while obviously, so I’m going to go a week or two early and go and play some golf with him somewhere and just hang out with him, which will be nice.

“It’ll be summer over there, unlike in Dunedin, but, unfortunately, one of the downsides was not being able to play for Otago, but hopefully I’ll be back at some stage.”

Although he hasn’t ruled out a return to New Zealand at some point down the line, Collins already has memories aplenty to look back on during his time with the Blues, Highlanders and Otago.

“When I was younger, it was always a dream to play Super Rugby, or it was a big goal, and so if I didn’t come back [from Scarlets] and try give it a real big crack, I would have just left holding onto something, so to come back and for Tana [Umaga, ex-Blues head coach] to give me a shot was pretty special.

“I just chipped away the last five years and had some pretty enjoyable moments with pretty good people too, so I’m definitely leaving pretty happy, looking back with pretty good memories rather than anything sour, which is good.”

Whether Collins makes similarly fond memories up north remains to be seen, but could the best memory of all be running out into Principality Stadium in a red jersey, singing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in front of 74,500 Welsh fans?

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Collins said through a wry smile.

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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Welsh-qualified Highlanders star Michael Collins lifts the lid on his move to Ospreys

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