Thanks to the amazing island support, fundraising efforts and generosity of Fullers and The Airport Bus, Waiheke Stags went to the Gold Coast Champions Cup. Realistically there was never the intention of winning the tournament, rather it would be an experience to enjoy and learn from.
Australia was going to be daunting as we were drawn against the Gold Coast ‘Metro’ Champions, Palm Beach; a team from Cairns- ‘South Side Comets’ who at the ages of 16 had just won the Under 18s Championship; another Gold Coast ‘Metro’ team and also a specialist football academy school from Brisbane.
We arrived on the Gold Coast late on Saturday 24 September. The boys worked incredibly hard against Palm Beach the next evening and the score was 0-0 at half time.  Straight after the break we conceded two sloppy goals but battled back to make it 2-1. The Stags then dominated the rest of the game but, despite opportunities, could not beat their goal keeper.  However, our players knew they had played the best game of their lives and they all came off smiling and very happy.
Monday was a rest day and after a night where the teams found it hard to sleep, they played South Side Comets. This was our best learning experience ever.  Down 3-0 within the first ten minutes, the Comets exposed weaknesses. The heat and the lack of sleep caught up and the Stags melted in the second half conceding more goals to receive an 8-0 hammering.
That night we debriefed about what happened.  The team spent the best part of an hour analysing their game so they could learn.
The next day the Stags played their third game in four days, against a ‘Metro’ team from the Gold Coast. After our Comets game they thought we would be easy. Instead the Stags grabbed the game by the horns right from the whistle and dominated play. We played them off the park and won 5-1.
Our last game was against a Brisbane football school. They had beaten the Comets team so we were a little apprehensive.  However, in the first half we managed to keep the score to 0-0. Two quick goals by them straight after the second half began forced the Stags to move forward but this time, after a week of football and running out of steam in the midday 28 degrees, we conceded another two goals to make the final score 4-0.
What was truly amazing about this tour was the way our youth played, behaved and learned as the week progressed. They responded with dignity and pride in their club.  They had played clubs who were all reps and several were on the books for professional Australian teams. Little ol’ Waiheke, population 8200, competed against teams selected from areas of 2.9 million people.
It was about resilience and enjoying playing even when it got tough.  It was also about learning what we need to do  next year, when we play in Metro, the highest division a Waiheke youth team has ever played in. As coach, I couldn’t have been more proud of these players. A third of our team are only 15 and playing up a year.
Phil Wainwright

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