Jerry Collins' last act of heroism, sacrificing his life to protect his baby daughter's, was revealed to thousands of mourners at the former All Black's funeral on Wednesday.
Close friend and ex-All Black, Chris Masoe, told the near-capacity Te Rauparaha Arena at Porirua that Collins had covered his then 10-week-old baby with his arms and body "when you [Jerry] realised what was coming".
"You made it possible for her to have a chance. That is the man you are," Masoe said, his voice choking with grief.
Collins, 34, and his partner, Alana Madill, 35, died instantly when a bus crashed into their car on a motorway in southern France at 3am on June 5 local time. Madill was driving and Collins was in the back seat with their daughter Ayla.
Ayla remains in a stable but serious condition in hospital in Montpellier.
Masoe, who now plays in France, and fellow ex-All Black Tana Umaga - Collins' cousin - escorted his body back to New Zealand on Sunday.
Both spoke at the three-hour public funeral along with moving and often humorous tributes from close family members of Collins and Madill.
A plethora of past and present rugby rugby stars, such as Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams, Jonah Lomu, Michael Jones and Reuben Thorne, rubbed shoulders with young and old from all walks of life to celebrate and mourn the short life of a man nicknamed 'The King of Porirua'.
As Northern United Rugby Football Club president Ron Wood said, "His was a big life cut tragically short".
The club carried Collins' remains on to Porirua Park on Monday, where his stellar rugby career began when he was about seven years old. Collins' coffin was aptly draped in his beloved Norths' blue and white colours.
One of his three sisters, Brenda Collins, told the crowd of close to 3000 that the past 12 days had been the toughest the family had faced.
"One thing I know about Jerry - he had a huge heart. You were a hero with your last trip with baby."
The huge outpouring of grief and support from around New Zealand and the rugby world had made them realise more fully what Collins had achieved in his life, she said.
She spoke of his generosity, such as buying a home for his parents in Whitby, but also mentioned his public ups and downs
"He is who he is, up front, no filter, has no fear."
Former All Black and Hurricanes teammates Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith also paid tribute.
Nonu expressed his "deepest sympathy" and offered his prayers to the Collins family.
"We love you all, and we love Jerry very, very much", Nonu said.
Smith, the current Hurricanes captain, wore a black shirt bearing the team's crest as he reflected on Collins' celebrated career with the Super Rugby outfit.
"Everyone would agree that when you think of the Hurricanes you think of Tana [Umaga] Cully [Christian Cullen] and Jerry. He's one of the legends," a visibly moved Smith said.
TRIBUTES BY FORMER GREATS
Outside the funeral, former All Black great Jones described Collins as "one of the most unique rugby players in world rugby and one of the most unique characters".
"He's definitely one of the most special players who will ever wear a black jersey. I think that's what the celebration was very much about today. It came out very profoundly and powerfully.
"He took the number six jersey to new dimensions. The game became a lot more physical and confrontational. I think Jerry brought that level of physicality and brutal influence, you know?"
"His trademark was not just being physical but influential, and I think that's very much how he played the game and how he lived his life. And that's what we celebrated today."
Jones admitted relief that he never faced Collins on the field as an opponent.
"I think the saddest part was when he started was my last game and he broke his leg playing the [Wellington] Lions. I think he was only 18 or 19 but obviously a real superstar in the making.
"For us, as Aucklanders that day, I think we won but it might have been a different result if he'd been playing.
"I was like very other New Zealander who came to appreciate Jerry Collins - just what a powerhouse and a huge influence he was on the number six jersey, but also as a leader within the All Blacks."
All Black great Lomu said Collins typified the idea of "having heart" and sacrificing himself to save his daughter was evidence of that.
"Listening to the reports and what they say about how they found him - that he was protecting his baby - that's just typical Jerry," Lomu said.
"He was a proud Porirua boy, a proud Samoan, but more importantly he was just a great man."
FAMILY MEMBERS SHARE GRIEF
Collins' mother, Galuia Collins, spoke in Samoan of her memories of her son, from his reluctance to rise in the morning to the final time they spoke.
She said he was being his normal self, talking about plans to move back home and his excitement over the upcoming Rugby World Cup.
"She said he was just a simple person. He didn't care about money, but always made sure they were looked after," a family friend said.
She also sang a Samoan song that many in the crowd joined in for. The lyrics said that despite the fact her boy had left the earth, memories of him would always be with his family.
Collins' mother ended her tribute in English, saying "Go far Jerry".
Madill's father, Darrell Maddill, told mourners he first met Collins in southern California in April 2014. When his daughter told him she was bringing Collins to meet them, he asked her what he was like.
"Dad, he's the most interesting man I have ever met," she confided in him.
A few days after first meeting, a curious Darrell Madill checked the internet to learn more and was stunned to discover Collins' huge rugby fame.
"But you know, he was such a grounded individual and that's obviously because of his parents and his upbringing. He was just a guy, a nice guy, a very nice guy but just an average person."
After Ayla was born in late March, Collins headed from France to Manitoba in Canada to meet his new daughter and meet his responsibilities as a father.
He said Collins was the most humble, respectful and devoted husband and father that he could have wished for his daughter.
"Despite the fact that he came from so far away from Canada, I never ever had any concerns about the future of my daughter, Alana and Ayla. He was somebody that we had a lot of confidence in."
After the fatal crash, Madill's parents and her sister, Brenna, headed to France to be with Ayla.
They had been stunned that complete strangers would come up to them and burst into tears because of their respect for his daughter and Collins - and concern for Ayla's survival.
One distraught woman told the family she had failed to offer to babysit Ayla while the couple went to a rugby gala in a nearby city to where they lived.
"I said to her through my other daughter who can speak French, I said 'You know, Jerry and Alana were so proud of Ayla, they would never have thought of leaving her with a babysitter that night. If you saw Jerry carry Ayla around, and I wish that you folks could have seen him, he never put her down. As long as she was awake, he carried her in his arms all the time."
Madill's sister, Nora, read a prayer at the service in Plains Cree Native Indian.
Jerry's uncle, Lu Collins, recounted the infamous time that Collins urinated on the field during a Bledisloe Cup test against the Wallabies in Christchurch in 2006. His mother was very upset about it because it was embarrassing.
"But I told her millions of people around the world have watched your boy pee. You should be proud," he said, sparking a roar of laughter throughout the arena.
On a more poignant note, he said Collins' death was a reminder to do the best possible with life and not waste it.