Justin Collins, or Gus as he is known throughout rugby, was not your typical Kiwi kid. Born in Tasmania, he moved to Whangarei in 1984 at the age of 10. Upon arrival in New Zealand, the Australian, who was raised on Aussie Rules, initially thought rugby was “just a strange game.”
“The whole passing backwards thing, it took me a couple of years to get my head around it,” said Gus.
The only reason he started playing was because his mates were involved. Unlike a lot of young Kiwis, there was never the dream of playing for the All Blacks.
“I didn’t have visions of playing for the highest team, I would just focus on the next step,” he said. He started by making the First XV at Kamo High School, and then stepped up to Whangarei club rugby. Before long he’d made the Northland Taniwha, playing 114 games for the provincial team throughout his career. Then the next step was Super Rugby.
By 1998, Gus had cracked it. But not for the team you’d think. At the time, Northland was Chiefs territory so Gus would regularly commute through the Blues region of Auckland and Counties Manukau to get to training.
In 1999 the territories switched, with the Blues losing Counties and picking up Northland and North Harbour. After 10 caps with the Chiefs, Gus changed allegiance to the Blues and from 1999 to 2009 he earned 92 caps for the team.
He says the team’s success came from the confidence each player had in themselves and in each other.
“It’s really difficult to single people out,” he said, adding that each of his fellow Blues men brought unique skills and personality to the team.
There was Steve Devine, “he was only a little man but he punched well above his weight.” And Rupeni Caucaunibuca, “he could win a game for you anytime he wanted.” It was a hall of legends that brought the Super Rugby trophy home in 2003.
Gus’ next challenge after Super Rugby was making the All Blacks, the ultimate goal. “But I couldn’t make it,” he said. “It’s a hard team to break.”
By 2009, Gus was 35 and “pretty much at the end” of his Super Rugby career. The head knocks were beginning to impact his game and it reached a point where a tackle would make him dizzy.
“As a loose forward, if you can’t make a physical impact you’re no use to anybody,” he said. After 16 years of first class rugby, Gus retired from the Blues.
Where to next? Gus had already spent a few years truck driving before he made it to Super Rugby and went full-time professional, so he says the transition back to the regular workforce wasn’t too difficult.
At the start of 2010 he started working with Croft Poles as a truck driver, a year later he was hired as a sales representative and he’s been there ever since. The role allows Gus to travel throughout the Blues region, meaning his ties to the club and former teammates are as strong as ever.
“I’ve got a massive passion for the Blues,” he said. “And I’ve been watching some of the young guys come through, like Blake Gibson. He’s been improving out of sight and he’s definitely a guy that the Blues need to nurture.”
Gus also spends much of his time as a self-confessed “taxi service” for his daughters, 11 and 13.
“I’m learning all about teenage daughters, that’s for sure,” he said with a laugh. Gus and his wife of 11 years continue to live up in Whangarei and on the odd occasion, Gus dabbles in some “golden oldies” footy.
“It’s limited to no contact and it’s really just a bunch of older guys having a run around and then a few drinks,” he said. “That’s what rugby was all about originally.”