The best emerging Indigenous footballers in Australia battled it out in Sydney this week and according to those in the know - the future is bright.
"It's a talented group this year, very talented,” said Ashley Drake, who attended the AFL Diversity Championships on behalf of the Brisbane Lions.
“I (was also here) last year and the Kickstart boys - it's a better group this year, a much better group.”
Drake is a part of the Lions’ academy system and says the AFL’s Diversity Championships, which encompass the Indigenous Kickstart Championship and the Multicultural All Nations Cup, both for under-16s, is a terrific initiative for developing players.
"With the whole next-gen academy stuff, you'll find that more and more clubs will go and realise that that's where they'll identify their talent from, for their next-gen programs and academies,” Drake said.
"We think it's a great tool that we get to go to these and kids that aren't in our academies, bring them in.”
Narelle Long is the AFL’s Indigenous Programs Manager and said the carnivals are a great opportunity for Indigenous and multicultural players to start to get exposed to an elite AFL pathway.
“At the start of the week at the opening ceremony we mention what an amazing opportunity it is for the players to develop on the football field,” Long said.
“And for them to know that there are AFL recruiters that are possibly putting a mark next to their name, gives them more direction and a clear understanding on what is expected of them over the next couple of years and get them thinking about how they can further develop to ensure that they’re reaching their goals in the future.
“Every year for the past six or so years that the program has been running, the players that have gone on to the national Boomerangs or World Team, we’ve had about five to eight players every year transitioning onto AFL lists.”
Shaun Hart is the director of academies at AFL club Port Adelaide and like Drake, he was impressed with what he saw.
"Talent was really good,” Hart said.
“We sort of identified top five or six in both comps ... there's probably a very handy talent pool from up to 20 (players) I reckon. And then the next 20 are probably not far away.”
Hart said at the level many of them are at, especially with the All Nations Cup in which players are often new to Australian Rules football, AFL clubs are looking for something special, rather than trying to find the finished product.
"We’re looking for the sort of things - AFL elite skills and talents that players possess,” Hart said.
“Trying to track guys at that age, even as early as under-15, who show traits that you think ‘Well that's the sort of thing that would work at AFL level and the sort of thing that would help him become an AFL player if you could get him into the right program’.
"I don't think we're ever going to expect to find a complete player. There might have been one, for instance, who was the best player in the Kickstart carnival, Jordon Kickett, and he is probably one of those guys who has already got a body where you think, gee, throw him into an AFL game and he probably wouldn't look out of place.
"He just dominated, he just was tough and strong and hard. Kicked the ball beautifully, ran both ways. So a guy like that all of a sudden looks like he'd be the best player in the carnival.
“Then you see a lot of guys you can tell are just really light-framed or might be even 195(cm tall) but they're really light-framed and you go, ‘He could be the next Paddy Ryder, potentially’.
“You're just starting to look for those things that might match up with the traits AFL players have and yet they’re so young, so under-developed, of course.”
Development is a big part of the Diversity Championships and for Long, helping the participants see how important it is to work on themselves off the field, is just as important as the on-field progression.
“In one room we are able to engage with 300 Indigenous or multi-cultural players,” she said.
“For us to provide a platform for them to hear from inspiring past players or inspiring speakers about all the off-field requirements that take to be, not only a good footballer, but a really good leader in their community.
“So we try and use that as an opportunity for us to bring in some inspirational speakers and get the boys thinking about other opportunities that they can start to engage with or work with in their lives.”
Sam Powell-Pepper is one of the current AFL players who progressed through the Kickstart program, having ultimately been selected by Port Adelaide with pick No.18 in the 2016 draft.
Hart was full of praise for Powell-Pepper as a person and as a footballer, and he expects to see plenty more strong young leaders emerge.
"The programs, the next generation academy and the quality of those will help a lot of these guys develop both on-field and off-field, to give themselves a chance,” Hart said.
“And we'll see a lot more players, I think, come through these championships down the track than what we currently do.”