ONE OF the first people Josh Bruce called at the end of a 2020 season that didn't go to plan was former St Kilda teammate Jack Steele.
Bruce's debut campaign with the Western Bulldogs saw the key forward recruit manage 14 goals in 17 games, with six of those majors coming in one outing against North Melbourne early in the season.
He describes it as the "perfect storm" of factors that didn't work: joining a new club and settling into the environment while on the road in Queensland for most of the year with rule changes and shorter games that didn't play to his strengths, all the while waiting for the birth of his second child while away from home.
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But the 28-year-old was intent on not having another year like it in 2021, so he reached out to Steele, now the Saints' skipper. The pair met up in Canberra, where they were both originally drafted to the Giants before separately seeking trades to St Kilda, with Bruce shedding six kilos over summer.
"At the end of last year I had some really honest conversations with myself and people I trusted as I was pretty disappointed in the season I had last year," Bruce told AFL.com.au.
"It was kind of a perfect storm of a lot of things that weren't going well for me in my personal life and a lot of other things, so I just knuckled down and went back to Canberra and called Jack Steele, one of my best mates from Canberra.
"I said 'Mate, I am doing every single session with you running-wise because you nearly won the Brownlow' and he was also All-Australian and had the season he had. Then I got a personal trainer three times a week as well just to knuckle down on the extra fitness base stuff. There's no real secret in this game, it all comes down to hard work."
That stint lasted two months, with Bruce making his way down to Canberra from the Gold Coast a month after the birth of son August – and the Dogs' elimination final defeat to the Saints. It provided him the perfect block of time to "regroup and recoup" after four months on the road.
"I think a lot of guys came back in career-best shape this year because they weren't trying to run on the cobblestones of Barcelona and the middle of New York. Everyone could actually get to some proper training venues," Bruce said.
The benefits have been obvious in the first two weeks of the Dogs' season. Bruce was busy against Collingwood in round one, kicking one goal from 11 marks and 15 disposals, and was busier against West Coast in last Sunday's thriller. He kicked three pivotal goals, including a sharp set shot in the final term that got the Dogs motoring and saw teammate Riley Garcia spotted in the corporate boxes mimicking Bruce's celebration after his fourth-quarter goal.
"It's pretty funny, it looks like he's taking the piss, but the story is that him and the boys in the box were having a bet on what celebration I'd go with if I kicked it. And he thought I was going to turn to the crowd and give the double fist, but I turned back to the boys," he said.
"I don't think anyone picked what I did. A few of them were anticipating the one arm in the air, and I almost gave it the Brett Lee lawnmower."
Bruce isn't getting carried away by what he calls a short sample size. But he has felt the difference of his off-season changes.
"The way the game's being played currently really suits my style with that workrate and extra length of the quarters. I love playing that 'red time', because essentially in 2020 we were playing three-quarter games so defenders can go with you most of the time," he said.
"Now the game's opened up it's a good time to be a leading forward. I was talking to 'Rooey' (St Kilda legend Nick Riewoldt) the other day and he was hanging to get back out there – he'd probably take 30 marks a week in today's game."
A mindset change has also helped.
"At the time [last year] I was trying to stay positive and obviously tried to make the most of it. We were in Queensland, we were playing footy, it's everyone's dream. I was thinking 'I should be really enjoying this'," Bruce said.
"But there was just something I couldn't quite put my finger on until after the season and I'd started to just really not enjoy the game and a lot of things with that perfect storm I'd just started to fall out of love with it.
"At the end of the year to just regroup and recoup and work out what was important to me and just having that routine and being more settled and finding that love again for the game has been really refreshing.
"We've got such a young and exciting group and I'm reaching towards the twilight of my career. I'm not near the end but I'm nearer to the end than the start so I'm just really grateful for the opportunity that I do have left and the group that we've assembled. It's bloody exciting over in the west and the sky's the limit."
Much has been made of the star-studded midfield the Dogs have pieced together, but Bruce nominated an emerging name as his preferred midfielder to lead to as a forward, likening him to a St Kilda champion.
"You'd actually be surprised but I'm developing a really nice connection with Patty Lipinski. He's not one of the household names yet but full tilt coming out of the stoppage he is a beautiful kick. He reminds me of Lenny Hayes – it's just a little parcel he puts out in front of you," he said.
Bruce played in a Good Friday clash with St Kilda in 2018 and will return this week for the clash against North Melbourne, having last week visited the Royal Children's Hospital ahead of the game, as the Dogs aim to start a season 3-0 for the first time since 2009.
"It's just such a good cause. Hopefully we can raise as much money as possible for the kids and their families and the hospital as they do such an incredible job," he said.
"As a father of two it's just so humbling and it makes you so grateful for what you've got and these kids are so inspirational. It's a fantastic time slot and one we're really proud to be a part of as a footy club."