The New Zealand and Solomon Islands U-16 teams headed out into the community this morning, making a Crime Prevention visit in partnership with RSIPF at White River School.
Although the key messaging of harmful substance abuse and gender-based violence were only briefly touched on, healthy living and education were messages which stuck with the local school students following the meet-and-greet.
School prefect Moffat Pirione, 17, said it was a very exciting visit from the full New Zealand squad, and four members of the Solomon Islands squad including White River student Densley Gesini.
“They were sharing some messages about how it’s important to stay in school to get an education and to do sports exercise,” Pirione said.
“It’s been really fun having them here. It was nice to have the players sharing some positive things.”
For 15-year-old Khadil Polyn it was less about the messages, more about the chance to meet some young stars in the flesh.
“For me, I couldn’t wait to see them. We were talking about it a lot after we learned they were coming, we couldn’t wait to see them,” she said.
“I can’t believe that I could take photos with the boys, shaking their hands and hugging them. For me it was a crazy experience.”
Although they’re both local students, when it comes to who they’re backing in the final the pair are on opposite sides of the field.
“I’ll go for Solomon Islands, the home side,” Pirione said.
Polyn meanwhile, said: “I’ll be supporting the New Zealand boys in the final, I think I’ll be backing the keeper”.
That keeper who was catching eyes was New Zealand’s Luca Taylor who wasn’t quite sure what to do with the attention.
“I don’t know what the attraction is,” Taylor said at having earned some of the loudest cheers during the assembly.
“I guess I have that effect on people.”
Taylor said the experience was an interesting one.
“It’s been pretty cool,” he said.
“All the kids seem really excited and happy to see us. It’s been pretty cool taking photos, you kind of feel like a celebrity.
“I didn’t know there would be quite this many people, but it’s still been cool, I’m comfortable.”
However while there was the exciting side of the visit which turned him and his teammates into cult-like heroes, Taylor also picked up on some of the inequalities between his life at home in New Zealand, and that of his peers at White River School.
“It’s been pretty interesting actually, it’s really different to Auckland,” he remarked.
“We’ve got playgrounds and stuff that they don’t have which is quite sad. But it’s really good to get out and socialise and meet the locals.”
New Zealand coach Jose Figueira said it was a memorable trip into the local community which he expects will leave a lasting effect on his squad.
“It’s definitely a first time experience of this level of adoration, I don’t they’ll forget this morning,” he laughed.
“We’re here for the football, we’re here to do a job and play sport. But to also be able to come here and do these things off the pitch as well is just as valuable as the football is, so it’s been a great day.
“The energy in the community and just the passion for sport and for football here is just incredible.
“So to be able to come here and share stories and take photos is something we’ll all remember.”