NIC Newman would be lying if he said there weren’t doubts. Frustration, too.
Having avoided a long-term injury since his AFL debut back in Round 2 of the 2017 season for Sydney, 2020 marked a new frontier for the former Swan.
Not only was he and the rest of the competition forced into hubs, Newman was dealing with the unfortunate setback of a ruptured patella tendon.
His 2020 campaign was essentially over before it began, and then there was further angst leading into 2021. On track for a Round 1 return, a complication with his knee meant he wouldn’t get back to AFL football for another two months after the season returned.
However, the man more affectionately known as ‘Noodle’ inside the four walls of IKON Park said his journey was one which he had embraced.
He would ultimately be recognised following the 2020 campaign recognised as Carlton’s Best Clubman, having taken on a development coaching role in the Gold Coast hub while undergoing his rehabilitation.
“As frustrating as being injured for a whole year is, I probably wouldn’t change it,” Newman told Carlton Media.
“It was a growth year for me, even though I didn’t play any footy. I think it has helped me as a player, in terms of understanding the important things that I need to do as a defender and get my job done.
“It’s been nice to be out there doing [this year], instead of being out there watching and trying to help. Hopefully with coaching, it’s still a few years before I get back into any of that.”
He can put the coaching ambition on the agenda for at least two more seasons, having re-signed to remain in the Navy Blue until at least the end of 2023.
Newman returned against Melbourne back in Round 9 — ironically, the team he played against when he injured his knee last season. In the 11 months since his last game, Adam Saad and Zac Williams had arrived at the Club, while Liam Stocker had settled into a half-back role.
The pressure was on for Newman to perform: from an individual standpoint, he produced some of the best football of his career as the season went on.
“There’s always a bit of doubt when you have a long-term injury: whether the body is going to hold up, whether my form is good enough, whether I’m good enough to come back in, whether guys have gone past you or taken your spot,” he said.
“I felt like in the last five or six weeks, I was back playing some good, consistent footy that I know I can play. I felt I got going towards the back-end of the year.
“The body held up alright, too. I’m really looking forward to having a full pre-season and getting a good run at it next year.”
Back to normal
As fate would have it, it was a relief that Newman returned when he did.
In Newman’s return game, the Blues played in front of just shy of 40,000 people at the MCG against the Demons. A week later, it was a home crowd of over 45,000 against Hawthorn.
The next week, the Blues were in Sydney, and the last six Victorian games of the campaign were played in front of empty stadiums.
With the benefit of hindsight, Newman was thankful that he was able to have the full taste of what AFL football has to offer after his long road back.
“Looking back on it now, I was lucky that there were crowds and I had the full experience of playing AFL again. It lacked a little bit with no crowds,” he said.
“It was pleasing, but the year moves on pretty quickly.
“It was definitely great to be back for the game, but before I knew it, it was ‘onto the next one’ and now the season is done.”
A taste of what’s to come
As he embraced a coaching role in his recovery from injury, Newman became a valuable mentor for Carlton’s emerging players — as well as those undergoing their own rehab.
When Newman returned to the starting line-up, Liam Stocker had established himself in Carlton’s defensive set-up. With a fortnight left in the season, Brodie Kemp received his senior nod.
For Newman, it was a “really pleasing” reward to see those two - among others - earn their stripes and get the chance at the elite level.
He believes they’ll only go from strength to strength in the coming years, having had a taste of what AFL football is all about.
“‘Stock’ is the obvious one that really jumped into the back seven and cemented his spot. He embraced it, he bought into it and got the benefits of playing a lot of senior footy,” he said.
“He’s tough and he’s a brave and I think all of the fans will recognise that.
“To see someone like Brodie Kemp, who I’ve had a bit to do with in rehab — I think it was a great experience for him.
“To understand the jump from VFL to AFL, I think he showed some great signs. Hopefully he’s got a taste for it and will be back better next year.”
Which teammates is in Newman’s debt?
When analysing each and every one of his teammates, there’s probably one person that Nic Newman - and most others in Navy Blue - would single out as the last they’d want to be on the receiving end of some friendly fire from.
Unfortunately for Carlton’s No.24, there wasn’t much he nor Matthew Kennedy could do about it in the second quarter of the Round 21 clash with Gold Coast.
A broken nose was the result for Newman, and a promise from Kennedy that is yet to be fulfilled.
“He said he was going to shout me a beer, but with Covid I think he’s probably going to get away with that one,” he said.
“He’s probably the last bloke you want to run into: he’s got the biggest and hardest head at the Club I think.
“He straightened my nose up for me, which is good. It’s all good. We’re all good.”