Blues' training thrills the fans
"I will probably never forget today."
Joe Duncan, 9, is talking with a huge grin on his face as he grips the rugby ball just signed by key Blues player and former All Black halfback Piri Weepu.
He and friend Oscar Kingan, 11, are at Onetangi Sports Park on Wednesday January 15, where Waiheke Rugby Club has arranged for the Auckland Blues squad to train for the day.
Club president Vern Whitehead and chairwoman Nique Van Selm are busy in the club room.
They are organising whiteboards for strategy training, mementoes for autographs, and barbecues for the players' lunch as residents with young families arrive to watch outside.
The president and chairwoman cannot hide their delight at welcoming the squad and their highly regarded trainers.
The team is led by head coach and former All Black Sir John Kirwan and assisted by former All Black coach Sir Graham Henry - now a Waiheke resident.
Mr Whitehead says the Blues usually come to the island for a training session every year but missed out in 2013. He says the club would like to see them more often.
Plans are already afoot for next year which could see a full pre-season camp lasting several days.
"I think the guys are blown away by the facility at the park and the clubroom as well as the general community feeling that exists - seeing all the kids turn out," he says.
Joe and Oscar are just two of many youngsters lining the stairs leading to the closed-off VIP clubroom area, eager to get autographs during breaks.
"It's pretty cool," Oscar says of meeting Piri. "A very good experience."
"It was awesome," Joe says.
Piri Weepu, who delays his lunch to please his young fans, says kids on Waiheke rarely get to see club players so it is worth making an effort for them.
"Some day it could be one of them. They could be in our shoes," he says.
"I enjoy it. It has its moments."
He says the team has had a tough training schedule since the start of the year but the boys are happy to be out in the field.
Coming to Waiheke to train is actually quite cool, he says, but is sad they cannot stay for some fishing afterwards.
"Graham (Henry) went fishing this morning. He was terrible from what I heard."