It has been an exciting time for Richmond Next Generation Academy participant Pala Kuma, who recently received the inaugural David Meade Scholarship from the Bendigo Pioneers Football Club.
The David Meade Scholarship was established by the Meade family and friends alongside Pioneers staff to provide ongoing support to the Bendigo Pioneers Boys and Girls Program, including players and their families.
The scholarship is awarded to a Pioneers Player who embodies the following attributes: consistency in preparation, competitiveness, diligence, relationships, and planning.
A worthy recipient of this year's scholarship, eighteen-year-old Pala Kuma epitomises the scholarship's values both on and off the field.
Kuma is an explosive young player for the Robinvale-Euston Football Netball Club in the Sunraysia region near Mildura, who travels to Bendigo to play Coates Talent League games for the Bendigo Pioneers.
Through his involvement in Richmond's Next Generation Academy (NGA), Kuma has had the opportunity to train with the Tigers VFL side and learn from AFL mentors to improve his preparation, competitiveness, and relationships with teammates.
"With the NGA, I've got the opportunity to look at how AFL players prepare for their footy games and their training. And you get to know the level of professionalism that goes into how they prepare, and I've tried to bring those attributes into my own preparation."
Richmond's NGA program focuses on introducing the game of Australian Rules to boys and girls from 5-18 years of age who come from Indigenous and multicultural backgrounds where they may not have been exposed to the sport before.
Kuma, who is of Tongan descent, attributes his unique playing style to his rugby background, making him a valuable addition to his local team and the Pioneers.
"Competitiveness has always been a natural thing for me, growing up playing a bit of rugby. I'm from Tonga, and I like to compete. I wouldn't want to go second-hardest and leave my teammates to compete by themselves."
"I build my game off my pressure and speed, being able to hold the footy in and not give the opposition easy marks and easy outlets. Tackle pressure is one of my main attributes. I like to get out and make myself noticed for that."
Training with the Tigers VFL team has helped Kuma envision a potential future at the club, training alongside some familiar faces, including NGA alumni Ashton Atkinson.
"The pathways that the Next Generation Academy provides for us players, even if we don't make the draft, we have another shot at the VFL and are given that opportunity by the Academy."
"I absolutely loved every moment of the training with the Richmond VFL team. They have this family theme, and when I walked in, I felt like I belonged there. They made me feel welcome. Every one of the players came up to me and introduced themselves, asked me if I needed anything just to let them know."
"I felt really confident training with the boys, knowing they had my back the whole time."
Despite geographical challenges preventing Kuma from participating in some main Pioneers training sessions in Bendigo, the strong relationships he has formed with the team allow him to slot back into the main team on game day effortlessly.
"I was able to form very positive relationships around Bendigo Pioneers, coming from Sunraysia, which is a fair bit of travel away and is quite excluded from the group (geographically), but I was able to bond with them and get involved," he said.
"I wasn't able to travel to Bendigo for every training session last year, so we did have Mildura-based training sessions as well…but come Saturdays for the games, it felt like I'd been training with them all year."
Richmond Football Club's Next Generation Academy (NGA) has been helping develop young players from Indigenous and multicultural backgrounds since 2016. Richmond has focused its Academy engagement and talent identification on the Goulburn Murray, Bendigo, Sunraysia, and North Central areas of Victoria, which are the catchments for the Murray Bushrangers and Bendigo Pioneers Coates League teams.
Both Richmond and the local communities are reaping the rewards of the Academy in recent years, seeing exciting young talents like Kuma getting their chance to train alongside VFL players and have the opportunity to be noticed by AFL recruitment scouts and to one day prove themselves on the big stage.