Local Hero: What Jerry Collins’s homecoming can teach the Left about Pasifika New Zealanders


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IT LOOKED SPONTANEOUS, but it wasn’t. Crowds numbering in the thousands very seldom appear without a lot of behind the scenes preparation. And when Jerry Collin’s body returned to Porirua last Sunday, it seemed as if half the city had turned out to welcome their fallen rugby hero home.

It was the same today. Te Rauparaha Arena was filled to its 4,000-seat capacity for Collins’s funeral service. Rugby greats of both the past and the present; including Jonah Lomu and All Black Captain, Ritchie McCaw; were there to pay their respects. Porirua’s ambitious young Mayor, Nick Leggett, spoke too, but briefly. More than happy to let the huge crowd speak for itself, Leggett simply noted that Collins was “a home-town boy at heart”.

The rugby field was always the place where Collins spoke the loudest, but, in the extraordinary outpouring of love, grief and pride at his tragic death, he has bequeathed to those with sufficient wit to interpret it, an important message about what moves and inspires Pasifika people in New Zealand.

Because these thousands of Pasifika men and women, boys and girls, who have, in recent days, filled their city’s streets and stadia, are exactly the same people that European political scientists and commentators have in mind when they talk, glibly, about the “Missing Million” voters.

It’s not a kindly designation. Those who, though eligible to vote, decline to do so are, more often than not, dismissed as inferior citizens. Their political inertia is explained away by the deleterious effects of poverty and cultural marginalisation. They are deemed to be suitable cases for treatment; targets for education programmes; the problem children of a political system under pressure.

And yet, in the space of a few days, these same “inert” citizens, utilising the social institutions that still count for something in their lives: schools; church groups: rugby clubs; were able to organise a demonstration of love and pride that stunned the nation.

There were some who found it all vaguely de trop: the man was, after all, only a rugby player. “For God’s sake – it’s not as if he cured cancer!” For others, it was touching proof of the essential innocence of Pasifika culture. “Oh, how marvellous! Just look at those hand-made banners. He obviously meant so much to them!”

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Such misjudgements only reinforce the need to more fully (and accurately!) decode the meaning of Porirua’s response to Jerry Collins’s death. Clearly, this was about so much more than rugby.

For all immigrant communities there are vectors of escape. For some, the primary route to participation and acceptance in the dominant culture is education. For others, it is service in the military. For a great many more, however, both here in New Zealand and around the world, sport is by far the most effective vector for escaping the constraints of subordinated immigrant societies.

But sport offers more than mere escape. Unlike education, which all-too-often removes the escapee from the cultural milieu in which he or she was raised, sport provides its success stories with multiple opportunities to “give something back”. This may be as simple as giving the fans superlative displays of sporting skill and flair. But it can also include mentoring up-and-coming players, coaching local or national teams, and providing that all-important “role model” for the young and aspirational.

Jerry Collins contributed at all these levels and was recognised as having done so by the community in which he grew up. This could only burnish his status as a local hero. Not only had he proved himself in the European world (including faraway France!) but, as he was doing so, he had remained, in Leggett’s words, “a home-town boy at heart”.

A son of Samoa, a son of Porirua, a son of New Zealand – living proof that to be born Pasifika is no obstacle to greatness.

It was for this that they turned out in their thousands to honour Jerry Collins’s homecoming. For the living proof he provided that ethnicity is not destiny; that it is a good thing to aspire to greatness; and that it is an even better thing to achieve it.

For left-wing European politicians this is the crucial message – though not all of them will recognize, and even fewer will welcome, it. That Pasifika people neither see themselves, nor are they happy to be treated as, victims. That, even more importantly, they do not see the exercise of the franchise as a primary, or even a particularly effective, vector of escape. The European working-class constructed a political party and used it to lever themselves out of poverty and into relative affluence. Pasifika people appear to be engaged in blazing a very different trail to the future.

Much of it is about community. More of it than is any longer the case with European New Zealand is about spirituality. But most of it seems to be about hope and the power of good examples. Not everyone can feint and side-step like Jerry Collins, but in those moments of transcendent sporting artistry for which he will long be remembered, he has inscribed an irresistible invitation to every young Pasifika man and woman:

“You, too, can be this good!”


  1. Spot on Chris. Beyond the chains of neo-colonisation are ways in which we do try to give back to our parents, families and communities. We fight thru eurocentric institutions like schools, mainstream media, professional sports, universities, political parties and govt depts (to name a few) to be “that good”. Jerry’s life and memory offer the much needed motivation to stay the course.

  2. “Not only had he proved himself in the European world (including faraway France!) ”

    Is playing rugby in Europe really proving yourself in the European world? I think to prove himself in the European world, Jerry would really have had to achieved success outside of playing rugby which is, I imagine, a bit of a bubble culture that exists in much the same way in France as it does in Japan or wherever.

    “in those moments of transcendent sporting artistry for which he will long be remembered, he has inscribed an irresistible invitation to every young Pasifika man and woman: “You, too, can be this good!”

    Yes, at rugby

    When the achievements of a culture is identified primarily with sport, I tend to think that culture is being limited by others, and limiting itself, in what it can achieve. Take black Americans for example – most commonly identified with sport and entertainment. When anyone thinks of a scientist in the United States do they visualise them as black? I remember hearing a documentary about a black American who worked in one of its National Parks and how surprised everyone was to meet him, whether they black or white.

    • Efeso and Eso,

      How many Pasifika youth “can be this good” as Chris puts it?
      Isnt this the old Irish “London streets paved with gold” or the US “Horatio Alger” myth.

      All these myths did was destroy families and communities for a culture of rampant ‘individualism’ where for every ‘success’ there were hundreds of ‘failures’.

      The story I read is that Jerry Collins was excellent at rugby because he could harness his ‘demons’ into that elite national sport. But nobody seems to have explained what those ‘demons’ were.

      Now that Gerry has been laid to rest, can we go past the celebration of his many great qualities and understand what those ‘demons’ were without being accused of disrespecting the man.

      Might they have been his inability to express his many other talents with equal success because our still racist European settler society, frustrates those abilities?

      I wonder if his ‘demons’ are still swirling around in the hearts and minds of the next generation of Pasifika youth. And how many of those also meeting early tragic deaths will be admitted to the halls of the ‘heroes’ of the NZ capitalist establishment?

  3. Greatness Chris Trotter, i thought upon seeing your headline that you were perhaps writing ‘tongue in cheek’, apparently not!!!,

    If religion was the Opium of the masses during the times of Marx,Lenin and Trotsky then ‘sport’, especially the professional versions of today, would have to be the Heroin used to stupefy those same masses and keep them firmly in their place in our modern world,

    Far from extolling Gerry as a ‘role model’ of excellence that the young of Porirua should all aspire to emulate perhaps you would better serve those youngsters of today by examining Collin’s with a more dispassionate eye not clouded by your televisions portrayals of today’s Hero quickly forgotten tomorrow for the obligatory gushing over some other human commodity which is what the ‘sports star’ is in reality,

    The number of occasions my lobes have been ground together recently hearing coach’s and sports administrators describe their teams/players as ‘the product’ a negative testament of such human commodification,

    Don’t get me wrong Gerry Collins had respect in our hood with a capital R, but, a ‘role model’ pfft,

    Heard of science teacher Ainslie Sauvao Chris???, teaches at Gerry’s old school, just happened, in between all that teaching, to be the Captain of the Samoan women’s rugby team,

    Didn’t manage to get busted on tv pissing on the field befor playing an international, quoted no-where making outlandish statements to make a bloke cringe in his skin, and, failed to my knowledge to ever be involved in an early Sunday morning pub brawl,

    Did tho convince a young Gerry Collins to fill out a teachers college application which unfortunately he didn’t follow up on where he might have become a much needed ‘role model’ to the kids of Porirua,

    Blandishing that Heroin of the masses, an escape into professional sport, as something the kids of Porirua,(or any other place for that matter), to aspire to is an exercise in mining for fools gold,

    99.99% of them will fail to achieve such an aspiration and in the process there will be untold physical destruction,

    Off the top of my nut there has been only that .1%,besides Gerry Collins that have recently achieved such an aspiration, Rodney Solialo, Tamati Ellison, TJ Perenara, in golf Micheal Campbell, and, Pene Hippolite who represented New Zealand at basketball,(must be something in the water at Mana College),

    RIP Gerry Collins, respect your way always…

    • Wow rebuttal of the year right there. Nicely written and very good points.

      Collins was no hero not by any definition of the word. Worshiping someone for their ‘hardness’ and ‘toughness’ is one of the least admirable traits of polynesian/maori culture and reflected in our domestic and general violence rates.

      • Right Hosea, ‘who’s the toughest’ was definitely ‘the thing’ on the streets of Gerry’s hood,

        Having grown up there with enough working matter in the upstairs cavity i realized way early in the piece that there is a certain ‘respect’ in displaying the same ‘toughness’ Collins was renowned for,

        Such respect tho is that garnered from ones peers by fear and the ability to knock someone off their feet with one punch was usually reached via having been dealt the same treatment numerous times in the process,(with such a territory comes the attendant psychological and physical scarring),

        The sad part of Gerry Collin’s career was the inherent waste, something i and many who grew up in Porirua know all too well, top of his year 11 form at maths was nothing to be scoffed at especially when you consider this was among the kids at St Pats Town college,

        At least that skill was seen in Gerry, most kids from the area have one, or more, areas of learning where they exhibit a bright light and far too many of them end up walloping the pots in some kitchen or other or working the trash at the tip,

        The fact that 20% of those Porirua kids are going to leave school barely literate to me is a crime against humanity…

  4. There are very few heros anymore that the lower and middle classes can look up to and feel connected to. True genuine folks that love people and want what is best for all, they are rare indeed. Jerry was so loved and he was a peoples person and we experienced that. The crowds came and showed that hope and love still thrives and I just wish that there were more leaders and people we could call heros now. Most all of our media and politicians and greedy doctors and greedy dentists are out to lunch and playing a role and they will be easily and quickly forgotten when they pass away.

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