James Stewart can finally put his hand up for senior selection with confidence again.
And when that return is granted, it’ll be a reinvigorated Stewart who dons the sash for the first time since round 11, 2018.
Having overcome the groin issues which plagued his 2019 season, the 26-year-old key forward has returned from the COVID-19 lockdown in ripping physical condition and with the energy and enthusiasm to match.
“I was probably racing the clock a little bit for round one. The body was feeling very good and I’d only been back in (full) training for about a week and a half, but I just wanted to have a bit more footy under the belt,” Stewart said.
“The break has been a blessing for me, and selfishly that’s just enabled me to prime myself for a lot of footy this year. The body’s feeling the best it has for a number of years.
“When I came off the track on Tuesday, I said to ‘Woosh’ (senior coach John Worsfold), ‘That’s one of our top-three days (ever) on the track’.
“The weather, the climate and the energy that comes with having the group back together for a contact session and a couple of weeks off from games after a long layoff, it was just an unbelievable feeling. It was a great day, a great session.”
When you consider what Stewart has been through, you realise why he gets emotional when he speaks about Tuesday’s session.
It’s almost two years to the day that he last featured in the senior line-up, having missed his fair share of full sessions with his teammates during that period.
But for all his struggles, there’s been a silver lining.
“It was tough for periods, but it’s allowed me to reset in life and footy,” he said.
“I know a lot of people say it, but when you have a long layoff and come back, you appreciate it so much more. You’re so energised, and you just feel so fortunate to be on the track in a main session. You enjoy that so much.
“It feels like I’ve come back playing like a kid again with that love for the game. It’s just a beautiful feeling.”
While Stewart is back to full fitness, his close friend Joe Daniher remains on light duties as he continues his rehabilitation from a groin injury.
That means it’s the end of a rehab journey the pair have closely shared, which even saw them travel to Ireland in the off-season with club physio Nick Kane for specialist training and treatment.
Stewart said he was heartened by the recent progress of Daniher, who has been a pillar of support for him during some dark days.
“Joey’s been huge for me. It’s been a long process for him and well-documented, and while we’ve had similar injuries and similar surgeries, there are so many differences. That’s the tough thing with groins,” he said.
“I’ve become really close with him and consider him one of my really good mates. We’ve spent a heap of time together over the last 12 to 18 months.
“He’s making really good steps and hopefully I’m able to perform for not only myself, but for him, to give him confidence that we can do it.
"He looks in a great spot and I can’t thank him enough for the support he’s given me. I’m constantly using him as a sounding board.”