Nathan Kreuger celebrates a goal with Jack Crisp during the R13 match between Collingwood and Melbourne at the MCG on June 10, 2024. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

NATHAN Kreuger points over this reporter's shoulder and knows not to whinge about his injury history.

Standing a few metres behind us is his fiancée, middle-distance runner Tess Kirsopp-Cole. Two years after winning the Oceania 800m title to qualify for the world championships in Oregon, compartment syndrome ended her bid for a spot at the Paris Olympics.

Gratitude is a theme that often permeates around Collingwood's rooms. King's Birthday is a day where that theme is central. It is the day on the AFL calendar that raises awareness and dollars to fight motor neurone disease and it now holds extra significance for Magpies coach Craig McRae. His brother-in-law Patty was diagnosed with MND 12 months ago. 

After 407 days between AFL appearances, Kreuger returned from the football wilderness on Monday in front of 88,659 people at the MCG, producing the best performance of his luckless career, following two shoulder reconstructions in under 12 months – April 2022 on his right and January 2023 on his left – before a pre-season hamstring tear and then calf strain delayed his start to 2024.

"Honestly, I feel like I'm a pretty resilient person, but I think that it is the people around me that have kept me level," Kreuger told reporters on Monday night after making a brilliant return against Melbourne at the MCG. 

"My partner behind you is just staring at me and giving me the biggest smile on her face. She has been one of the main influences as to why I've been able to come back and keep pushing and just be me. 

"When I want to say, 'I can't be bothered today', she goes, 'No, get your arse in the gym and let's do it'. She has been so massive for me.

"My other family members have also played a massive part and the footy club; a lot of guys have been pushing me hard to come back. Now that I'm back I just want to play my role and stay."

Kreuger arrived at the MCG fighting for his career on Monday. Halfway through his sixth season in the AFL, the 24-year-old had only played nine senior games since Carlton traded him to Geelong in exchange for pick No.42 at the end of 2018, after the Blues and Gold Coast were granted access to a couple of state league players ahead of the draft. 

The South Adelaide product played five games in 2022 after moving up the highway from GMHBA Stadium to the AIA Centre, including both finals as the sub after recovering from his first shoulder reconstruction. But last year he was subbed out of his two appearances and didn't secure a new deal until late October. 

Nathan Kreuger looks on from the bench after being subbed out with a shoulder injury on Anzac Day. Picture: AFL Photos

"There was a bit of that [playing for his career] today," Kreuger admitted when asked about the importance of game No.10 on King's Birthday. 

"But at the same time, I just want to enjoy my footy and hopefully the contract stuff takes care of itself later in the year."

After kicking two goals in each of his first two outings for Collingwood, Kreuger kicked a career-high three goals – all from set shots – against Melbourne in the 38-point win, including one from the Jamie Elliott spot and a celebration that was reminiscent of Nathan Buckley's famous point on Anzac Day in 2002.  

"I probably over-celebrated, to be honest, just got caught up in the moment," Kreuger said. "I'm just really excited to be out playing and doing what I love for the team. I'm so excited to be able to play on a day like today."

With six premiership players sidelined due to injury, plus Nathan Murphy forced to medically retire in April and Dan McStay recovering from a knee reconstruction, Kreuger became the 33rd player Collingwood has turned to this year, replacing Ash Johnson on King's Birthday after kicking three goals in the VFL curtain-raiser at Marvel Stadium a week earlier.  

"I felt like I needed to earn my spot," he said. "I know I was the carryover for about three or four weeks in a row, but once they said to me go back, get some form and be yourself, I managed to do that in the VFL last week."

Now Kreuger is back after almost as many trips to the hospital as to an AFL venue across the past two years, he believes he can make a career in this caper. 

"I do, I really do," he said. "That's all I have is self-belief. I think that's all you need and that's what I'm going to go with is self-belief and courage to do that."

McRae is a key reason behind that unwavering confidence. When fit, the coach picks him. 

Nathan Kreuger celebrates a goal during the R13 match between Collingwood and Melbourne at the MCG on June 10, 2024. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

"He keeps you really honest, he has challenged me a lot throughout the pre-season and a lot today to just play my role," he said. "I'm incredibly thankful to him for letting me be part of this footy club and be part of this Collingwood family."

With no Brody Mihocek, Mason Cox, McStay or Elliott inside 50 on Monday, it was Kreuger who put Melbourne's season on the brink. And the Collingwood army showed its appreciation by serenading the journeyman with screams of 'KROOOOOG' every time he went near the ball on a day he breathed life into his career.