Roosters players receive the traditional Maori greeting at their visit to the Te Atatu rugby league club in west Auckland. Copyright: www.photosport.co.nz

Breathing life into the heartland

There's only one golden rule when south Auckland kids join the Mangere East Hawks: Gang colours have no place inside the clubhouse.

If you want to be part of a club that boasts 43 junior teams and were the under-18s champions in the club's 50th year last year, you leave whatever battles you are fighting in life in the car park and focus only on the jersey.

It's the grounding that has enabled the likes of Jerry Seuseu, Frank-Paul Nu'uausala, Jeff Lima and the current crop of Peni Terepo and Sebastine Ikahihifo to rise out of one of the toughest areas of Auckland to make better lives for themselves and their families.

"Look around bro, this is the Mount Druitt of Auckland," Phillip, a Mangere East official, told NRL.com.

"The soccer club over there, they've had three break-ins; we haven't had even a broken window in seven years.

"Yeah, there are kids here who are members of gangs but the gang colours get left outside. Here it's all about the colour of the jersey."

Apt then that it was the Panthers – a team from rugby league heartland in western Sydney whose catchment encompasses some lower socio-economic demographic areas, with one of the largest junior nurseries on the planet – who visited the kids at Mangere East in a city-wide community blitz that brought the biggest stars in the game up close and personal with thousands of rugby league fans throughout Auckland.

Raiders winger Bill Tupou wasn't aware that Canberra was heading back to the ground where he learned the game and was overwhelmed by the turnout at the Bay Roskill Vikings.

"Yeah this is the first club I played for and where I grew up," Tupou told NRL.com. "I was surprised we were coming here but it was good to come down and see some family and friends. It's good to see the kids coming out to support the game.

"I never thought this many people would actually come to support the Raiders. It's just the community the club has brought up but it's good to see all the kids and the parents bringing their kids up."

It was a similar reception across the city with 15 NRL clubs – the Titans visited Hibiscus Coast on Wednesday – swamped by fans of all shapes and sizes, many of whom won't have been able to afford tickets to the weekend's Nines extravaganza at Eden Park.

"They don't really say what it means to them but you can just tell by the vibe you get and just how grateful they are to have us in their presence," said Knights centre Dane Gagai. "It's a two-way street because we're grateful that we could come into another country – which has got the one team in the Warriors – but have all these supporters over here. It just makes us appreciate what we do and grateful that we've got all these fans."

The mayor of Auckland, Len Brown, joined hundreds of fanatical supporters at the Point Chevalier Pirates to welcome the Broncos to town with the players' delayed arrival only heightening the fervour.

Point Chev junior Awen Guttenbeil – who looks fit enough to have joined Brad Fittler and Steve Menzies on the field this weekend rather than commentating for Sky Sport – was effusive in his praise for what such visits will do for the game throughout New Zealand.

"This was my junior club. I ran around as a junior and then went from here to Manly and then back to the Warriors, so it's a special place," Guttenbeil said. "Me and Stacey Jones played in the same team together, this is our old stomping ground.

"The first grade side from Point Chev played against the Warriors under-20s in a trial last week so to have that and then step up to the Broncos Nines squad coming here, just really awesome for ex-players seeing that people are coming out and supporting the game and more importantly, getting behind the club.

"I don't think we'll understand what something like this will do for junior numbers until a few months down the track but it's certainly a positive thing."

As the light began to fade, the Auckland weather had its say, with black clouds rolling across the sky. At first a steady drizzle did little to dampen spirits at Bay Roskill but it soon became a steady downpour. The Raiders players responded by continuing to pose for photos with fans under trees and awnings rather than the open field while at Mangere East Panthers players were moved inside the clubhouse and the throng of autograph hunters formed an orderly queue.

There were jumping castles, games of touch and free sausage sizzles all over town but it wasn't just the fans who left with a heightened sense of community that rugby league can provide.

"Hopefully they got as much out of it as we did," said Raiders forward Joel Edwards.