Jerry Collins’ tragic death casts very cold light on Fifa grubbiness

All Black lit up forlorn November afternoon when he visited Donegal a decade ago

The late Jerry Collins in action for New Zealand during the 2007 World Cup. Photograph: William West/Getty Images

Two major stories from the world of sport dominated the headlines all day yesterday. One was genuinely tragic. The other was merely sad – in the smallest sense of the word.

Anyone who happened to be in Ramelton almost decade ago won't quickly forget the enthusiasm and sense of fun with which Jerry Collins lit up a forlorn November afternoon. He was visiting Donegal as part of an All-Blacks expedition to visit the birthplace of Dave Gallaher, captain of the 1905 New Zealand Invincibles and a sacred figure within All-Blacks rugby culture.

On the surface, the midweek trip looked like a typically skilful public relations exercise by a sporting association which seems to manage to do the right thing all of the time. But it became evident, as Collin's cousin Tana Umaga and the other visiting All-Blacks walked down the main street of the Donegal village to visit the original Gallaher home, that the visit was important to them. Umaga's infamous tackle on Brian O'Driscoll in the Lions series had made him deeply unpopular across Ireland but the visit to Donegal did much to dissipate any lingering bad feeling.

It was a peculiar event, at once intensely local and international. Umaga was almost bashful when he stood on the stage in the parish hall to say his few words.He spoke simply and powerfully about why this Gallaher’s reputation continued to play such a vital role in the imagination of All-Blacks rugby players. Earlier in the day, the All-Blacks had officially opened the new pitch at Letterkenny RFC. Rugby is still finding its feet in Donegal so it was faintly surreal to see half a dozen of the most famous rugby team on the planet happily standing around what was a bare and brand new rugby field. It fell to Jerry Collins to break the champagne bottle against a rock. He soaked himself in the process and laughed it off.


He had a peroxide flat-top going then, which was another reason all the local kids were drawn to him and, man, he charmed everyone he met all day long. And as it got dark, the All-Blacks left town and the ordinary, after-school Wednesday feel descended upon Ramelton again.

Yesterday’s desperately tragic news that Jerry Collins had been killed, along with his wife, in a car crash in France, sent a tremor of shock through world rugby. But it was also felt among the fringe rugby community in Ramelton and Letterkenny whom Jerry Collins made feel significant and worthwhile for an afternoon.

In the light of that news, the other dominant story concerning Fifa's €5 million hush money to the FAI seemed all the more grubby and just very, very small. The house of Sepp Blatter has disintegrated with staggering swiftness in the week since his defiant stand and re-election as the head of Fifa.

Morally superior

Throughout last week, FAI chief

John Delaney

wasn’t shy about showing his dislike for Blatter, adopting a tone that was reproachful and morally superior. There was nothing new in the revelations that the FAI had received a sum of money from Fifa after a showdown between Delaney and Blatter. And from the distance of six years, it is easy to forget the extent of the national anguish and moral outrage which gripped Ireland in the days after Thierry Henry’s deliberate handball had created the goal which knocked the Republic of Ireland out of the World Cup.

Five million is no inconsiderable sum for a small, fringe football association and after exchanging a few pleasant expletives and, one assumes, association bank details with Mr Blatter, Delaney took the peace offering and fled, believing he had done a good day’s business for the FAI.

Of all the member nations of Fifa, Ireland and the FAI are being showcased around the world this weekend as an example of the nefarious, slippery manner in which Fifa conducted business. Delaney can argue that he rescued something tangible from a no-win situation and that the high-moral ground does not pay for the stadium costs or salary costs. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who yesterday found his voice in relation to matters of public interest, labelled the deal which the FAI cut with Fifa as “extraordinary”. But as the past week in the Dail reminded us, this is an extraordinary little country. And it wasn’t even new news. It just confirmed that Delaney spurned a perfect opportunity to do the right thing: to refuse the five million pay-off and walk out and tell the world about it. A long trail of controversy which has followed Delaney through his leadership of the FAI, from the contentious salary as chief executive of an association whose domestic clubs struggle to survive to the uninhibited socialising. It has been enough to make people despair about the state of domestic football.

Ride the storm out

There will be the usual calls for Delaney to go this weekend and, elsewhere, arguments will be forwarded that in the cut-throat world of sports administration, he is as able as they come.

The Taoiseach said yesterday he believes Delaney’s position to be tenable, even if he has a bit of explaining to do. He will ride this storm out. But he won’t be there forever.

You have to presume that John Delaney at some level cares about Irish football. And yet again an episode emerges which makes you shake your head and wonder what he is at. Twenty years after the Lansdowne riots and still the bricks and bats will fly around the stadium, although but this time they will have nothing to do with the English. And here’s a truth that even Sepp Blatter may be considering this week. After the champagne has been drunk, it comes down to who is looking back at you in the mirror.

It is about the legacy that you leave.

It is impossible to tell what kind of impact Jerry Collins might have had on his chosen sport if the breaks had been better for him. He was 34 when he was killed and although he was rightly praised for having a superb rugby career, it was how he carried his reputation that shines through all the tributes.

It was small stuff – running an impromptu boys training session at a local club in Devon when he happened to be holidaying there and behaving as though opening a new pitch in the northwest of Ireland was an honour. He was simply a very graceful dude. The way he carried himself as an All-Black added up to doing the right thing and behaving in a way that reflected well on the people and the organisation he represented – just as Dave Gallaher did one hundred years before him.

This is yet another occasion when John Delaney has failed to do that for the Irish football community. What a shame.