The couple’s three-month-old daughter, Ayla, was taken to hospital in Montpellier in a critical condition after their car collided with a bus on the A9 autoroute near Beziers in the early hours of Friday. Collins had been playing for French side Narbonne for the last 18 months.

Collins, 34, made his debut for New Zealand in 2001, and the tough-tackling flanker won the last of his 48 caps in 2007. The All Blacks said on Twitter that they were “shocked and saddened” by the news.

Collins’ first club, Wellington Hurricanes, were in action against Highlanders overnight. Players wore black armbands and a minute’s silence was held in his honour before the start of the match while a montage of his highlights for Wellington and the All Blacks was played on the ground’s big screens.

French police have said in a statement that the car was being driven by Alana at the time of the accident, with Collins in the back seat. It is not clear why she lost control of the vehicle, but the car veered across the carriageway, hit the central reservation and then came to a standstill in a sideways position before it was hit by a tourist bus.

Local newspaper Midi Libre reported that the bus driver had rescued the baby girl from the wreckage by the time emergency services arrived.

Former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick said Collins “epitomised everything an All Black should be”. Quoted by the BBC, he said: “We say in the All Blacks, a good man makes a great All Black and he was a very, very good man. He was as tough as old boots on the field, very uncompromising and not someone you wanted to play against. But off the field he was the nicest guy you could meet. A loving man and very caring.”

Samoa-born Collins began his career with Wellington, and made his All Blacks debut in 2001. He captained the side three times, and played in the 2003 and 2007 World Cups. Later in 2007 he famously played for Barnstaple’s second XV against Newton Abbot while on holiday in Devon. After announcing his international retirement in 2008 he joined French club Toulon, and in 2009 he signed for Welsh club Ospreys. He later played in Japan before moving to France.