Neil Balme talks about Richmond coming to Shepparton

By Alex Mitchell

There are 10 days until Richmond and Melbourne descend upon Shepparton for a JLT Community Series showdown that is not to be missed.

While the Demons bring home-town hero Clayton Oliver back to his Goulburn Valley roots, the game will have the Tigers continue to build a strong relationship with its Next Generation Academy Program region, being the Murray Bushrangers and Bendigo Pioneers catchment areas.

When in town, they will host a NGA training session on Friday, March 1, before an open training session on Deakin Reserve a day later.

Richmond head of football operations Neil Balme was excited his club could head to the region and get a taste of country life and continue to promote the sport via its academy.

‘‘It’s just to be engaged in the community, there’s lunches and clinics and things like that, but it’s just about being there in town, that’s as good as anything,’’ Balme said.

‘‘The boys will just be wandering around town and that’s pretty exciting for the locals, but our blokes like that too because they don’t get out to the country much any more.

‘‘We need to make sure we’re encouraging young kids to be as interested in the game as you or I were at that same age.’’

The NGA program is designed to promote the sport to under-represented segments of the community, giving selected indigenous and multicultural players exposure to an elite football environment.

In return, clubs have increased access to their developed youngsters — as Richmond did when drafting indigenous talent Derek Eggmolesse-Smith in last year’s Rookie Draft.

But Balme said the program was about far more than having cheap access to talented players.

‘‘If we can find a kid from a diverse or indigenous background and pick them up cheaply that is great, but it’s not the main reason we do it,’’ he said.

‘‘We try and leave that as more of a consequence of all the work we do in the area.

‘‘It’s about doing our bit as a club part of the AFL family, it’s an opportunity to stimulate and include and encourage kids to play footy. Not every kid is going to barrack for Richmond, but we want them to all love AFL, it’s our responsibility to encourage boys and girls to play junior football.’’

As for the March 3 hit-out against Melbourne, Balme was excited to test the side’s pre-season progress against the fellow preliminary final loser — and said with only two competitive practice matches, fans should expect to see plenty of big names.

‘‘You would think so, there’s only two games in the pre-season to squeeze game-time into players,’’ he said.

‘‘We haven’t had a look at selection yet, but clearly it’s a serious part of the pre-season, so you’d reckon you’d see most of the players you want to be out there in round one.’’

And as the Tigers look to get back to their 2017 premiership heights, Balme said early signs were looking good.

‘‘We’re working very hard and standards are lifting like they do every year. The attitude at training has been outstanding, there’s a fit bunch of kids that couldn’t prepare any better, but that doesn’t guarantee you anything,’’ he said.

‘‘The outcome against Melbourne isn’t important, but the way we play is, so I think we’ll put on a damn good show for you.’’