NZ community brought closer by rugby league
Make no mistake: the Downer NRL Auckland Nines is an event about more than just rugby league.
Just ask the kids in Manurewa in south Auckland.
Hundreds of them flocked to Mountford Park just opposite the Manurewa Marlins' leagues club last week to meet and greet their favourite players from the Rabbitohs, Raiders and Eels as part of the NRL's community visits in the region.
For four hours – if not longer – they lined up to have their photos taken with players such as Bevan French, Blake Austin and Cody Walker. They had their jerseys signed by their heroes, devoured sausage sandwiches by the dozens, cooled down with refreshing snow cones, and raised money through raffles for the local footy teams.
It was a humbling experience for the players who took part in training drills and then joined the children for some ad hoc touch footy on the wide expanses of the suburban playing fields.
Even the local soccer and cricket teams who were training next door popped over to meet the NRL stars and say hello to some of their wide-eyed mates who had just mingled with their heroes.
By the time it finally wrapped up – the snags were going cold and the light was fading fast – the kids were still smiling from ear to ear and showing off the autographs they had scored and were busy choosing which filter to use for their perfectly-framed selfies.
Chairman of the Manurewa Marlins Rugby League Club, Darrell Woodhouse, has been involved with the club since he was seven years old and has looked after virtually all the grades with his wife for as long as he can recall.
Last week's visit was a reminder just how powerful rugby league can be, and Woodhouse knows the impact it will have on the local community.
"We have all different kinds of factions of players and cultures within the club, so for us to have these NRL clubs come here is humbling, it's a privilege and we're just blown away to have them here," he told NRL.com.
"It reflects on the community that south Auckland isn't as bad as people make it out to be. We love it here.
"These visits affect all of these kids in their own little way. We've got so many sports out there, but once you play the game of rugby league, I don't think you can turn away from it. That's my philosophy. Once you put on the boots and get handed the jersey, it's a love affair that you can never get rid of and I came from a rugby background!"
The Marlins, who play in Auckland's Sharman Cup, have produced some of the biggest names in the game with the likes of Joe Galuvao, Greg Eastwood, the Bromwich brothers and several Kiwi Ferns on the honours board.
Just because they've moved on, don't for one minute think the past players have forgotten their roots. Joe Galuvao was honoured with a dinner at the leagues club a few years ago, while Kenny Bromwich still recalls his time in Manurewa as a junior.
"My brother was playing footy in Manurewa and I would always go and watch when I was younger. Dad decided to chuck me in and I played there until I was 16 and then moved on to Melbourne," Bromwich told NRL.com.
"I think most of the south Auckland teams are pretty big, but Manurewa is really big. We've got many kids in multiple divisions so it's good to have such a big rugby league presence down there."
For Bromwich, one of the most memorable moments of his career was a community visit to Manurewa a couple of years ago that saw he and his Storm teammates greeted by a traditional Maori welcoming ceremony.
"It was awesome. They greeted us with a Pōwhiri which is always good to see. It was great to see some of the Aussie guys who haven't seen something like that really take an interest in it," he said.
"I think those moments will stick with us, but also the kids for life. It makes them think that a career in footy isn't out of reach and hopefully it means they'll push harder to make that happen."