JAI NEWCOMBE might still be wearing the black and white of Poowong in Gippsland this weekend and not the brown and gold of Hawthorn at the MCG if it wasn’t for a phone call out of the blue at the end of 2020.
This time last year, Newcombe had never played a game in the VFL or in the NAB League, but those who watched the Ellinbank & District Football League in 2018 and 2019 saw what the AFL is now seeing: if you give Newcombe a chance, he will take it.
With the coronavirus pandemic wiping out Victorian football in 2020 – ruining Newcombe's chance to play for Gippsland Power as an overage player after being cut from previous squads – Newcombe was set to play for Poowong again last year when Box Hill Hawks GM Daniel Napoli asked if he wanted to come down to do a pre-season.
The 20-year-old played a practice match for Box Hill that March after Gippsland Power sent a few over-age players down for the day. But this was different. He had never been approached by a VFL club before and was surprised by the interest.
Before he knew it, he was driving from Warragul to Box Hill three nights a week, starting his day at 6am, leaving life as an apprentice carpenter at 3:30pm to make it to training in time for the warm-up, before returning home by 10pm, often even later.
The rest is history. Newcombe sent recruiters scrambling across the first six rounds of the VFL season before he was selected with pick No.2 in last year's mid-season rookie draft. He then made his debut for Alastair Clarkson's side nine days later, playing six more games for the Hawks to complete a remarkable rise from anonymity to an AFL powerhouse.
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Newcombe is still coming to terms with his new life. He has moved in with ruckman Ned Reeves in Brighton East and is a cog in Hawthorn's midfield, playing under the same coach – Sam Mitchell – that launched his VFL career. Today he faces St Kilda in game No.11, a world away from the Longwarry Football Netball Club, where Poowong played yesterday.
"Life is completely different. It is pretty easy to have a rough idea of what I would be doing if this never happened. I'd be in the third year of my apprenticeship now and still playing local footy if the VFL opportunity didn’t come knocking," Newcombe told AFL.com.au at Waverley Park this week.
"It wouldn’t be too exciting, but I would be enjoying the local life. There is a lot to take in and I'm still taking in things I didn’t expect to be in front of me. I'm loving every bit of it. I'm still coming to terms with how special it really is."
Mitchell watched Newcombe go from someone who was a remote chance to make the list when he arrived at Box Hill City Oval to a round one starter within weeks, all the way to Hawthorn in a matter of months. It was that swift.
The four-time premiership Hawk pulled Newcombe aside after training one night. Mitchell had seen enough. Newcombe wasn’t only the best VFL listed inside midfielder at Box Hill, he was the best available even when the AFL listed players played. He was sure of it. And it was only a matter of time before others would see what Mitchell saw.
"I remember talking to Daniel Napoli about him and we were talking about inside mids. We had too many on the list," Mitchell recalls.
"We were looking at who was going to miss out and we went through them and then I said, 'And Jai'. And he looks at me and goes, 'Hang on, is he in that group?' And I said, 'He's at the front of that group'. It happened so quickly he was in front of some guys who were coming off AFL lists at the time and then he went past them so quickly with his consistency of effort.
"I remember having a couple of conversations about him. One was about his kicking and just his strength around the ball – a lot of guys in the VFL are strong and good around the ball – but then we did a running session and he was at the front of the group. I looked at him and I thought, I don’t think he's supposed to be at the front of the group. Look at the size of him.
"Most people look at Ollie Wines when he got drafted and thought he couldn’t run and then you find out he's one of the best runners at Port Adelaide. In a way, Jai is a little bit like that; he's got really strong running power, despite looking like a guy who is probably going to be a plodder because he's got such a mature physique."
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Newcombe's rise from obscurity to the radars of AFL clubs happened almost overnight. Most recruiters had never heard of him before April last year. Sydney was the first club to call and organise a dinner after only three games in the VFL. Three more clubs set up meetings. Some were keen, others showed mild interest.
"It was probably about a month out it really started to pick up. I'd only played three or four games when the first club approached. From then it snowballed pretty quickly," Newcombe said.
"Close to the draft it got a bit of media attention. It blew up more than I expected. Just having your name in the media is a bit daunting when you don’t even know if you are going to get drafted or not. It was exciting being linked to clubs and spoken about at the same time."
Hawthorn list manager Mark McKenzie had been keeping a close eye on Newcombe across those six VFL games. Mitchell poked his head into his office at Waverley Park every Monday to let him and the recruiters know about Newcombe's latest performance, just in case they'd somehow missed it. They hadn't.
The alignment between Hawthorn and Box Hill – and Hawthorn's history of picking players from Box Hill – meant there was a fair bit of interest in the outcome from within the Hawks. McKenzie and the recruiting team at Hawthorn went to work on Newcombe before the mid-season rookie draft. But they didn’t let him know they would take him until they took him, despite him being the only player of 602 prospects to nominate 'other terms', which ultimately saw him sign a 30-month contract with Hawthorn.
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"On draft night I had a few family around and my girlfriend there. I actually got quite emotional when it happened, which surprised myself with the reaction. It obviously meant a little bit. It was a great night. It moved pretty quick from there. I was in at the club the next day and that was the end of my apprenticeship," he recalled.
Nine days later Newcombe made his debut against Sydney at the SCG on a Friday night stage. He'd never played in front of more than 1,000 people before, rarely at night. But it didn’t faze him. Newcombe laid a record 14 tackles and looked at home at the level, even though he was a long way from home.
"It was crazy. It was a big week after being drafted. I was shocked I was even in the squad three days prior; I was quite surprised I even made that. Then the meeting on the Wednesday or Thursday was pretty surreal," he said.
"I didn’t expect to come in so soon. I thought I'd bide my time and learn off the other midfielders and maybe get an opportunity later in the year or even early this year. To be given the chance straight away was amazing."
Those inside Waverley Park watched him overtake others over the summer, just like he did at Box Hill City Oval 12 months earlier. Newcombe has been rewarded for his pre-season by being picked every week so far in 2022 as he looks set to become a permanent fixture under Mitchell.
"He is a guy that plays better than the stats say," Mitchell said about Newcombe, who has averaged 16.7 disposals and 4.3 tackles across the first three rounds.
"Sometimes as a coach there are guys who are really important who members and fans don’t see the upside as much because they don’t hit the stat sheet as heavily. He is getting more of it now and is playing a really important, effective role for the team."
Newcombe grew up an avid Hawthorn supporter in the country. He didn’t get down to Melbourne for too many games, but he watched the Hawks closely from afar. Mitchell was one of his favourite players as a kid, making the step from Poowong seniors to Box Hill surreal, let alone to Hawthorn.
"He has been a massive help for me," Newcombe said.
"To be able to go to him whenever I need has been awesome. Being a Hawks fan, I was a little bit nervous to approach him at the start of Box Hill pre-season just because of that awe factor. I've followed the Hawks my whole life. He has instilled a confidence in me to use my strengths and get the most out of myself. He has made me believe that I'm good enough at this level."
Newcombe didn’t only go from Poowong to Box Hill to Hawthorn, he went from Poowong to Toorak when he was drafted by the Hawks, moving in with poster boy O'Meara in the second half of last season. And it was there, under the same roof as the stand-in captain where he learnt some of the finer details about life in the AFL.
The first meal that Newcombe whipped up was a scalloped potato dish that was layered with cream. It went down a treat, but not without O'Meara suggesting that dish be removed from the repertoire, at least in-season. Newcombe took it on board and still smiles about the gentle reminder that he isn’t playing country footy anymore.
"I went from Poowong to Toorak; fair change of scenery. It was pretty cool to live with Jaeger. He's got a nice place and he eats well; he is a professional athlete that’s for sure, he doesn’t look the way he does for no reason," he said.
"To get the insight off him was great, how to prepare on game day and days leading in. He taught me there and then about the shoulds and shouldn'ts he's been massive in showing me the way. I can't thank him enough for what he was able to do for me at the start of the year."
The scenery and the standard of football might have changed, but Newcombe hasn’t. He is just on a much bigger stage, where the stakes are much higher, but so are the rewards. One day he will return to play for the Poowong Magpies. But that day might be some time away.