WE OFTEN hear that rehab is the loneliest of places.

Josh Bruce knows this more than most.

Not only did the Western Bulldogs forward succumb to an ACL injury in round 21 last season, but he also began the process of recovery almost completely on his own.

"The main issues was when I did it and what Melbourne was going through at the time, in terms of the city obviously being in lockdown," Bruce told AFL.com.au.

"My wife and family were in quarantine, coming back to Victoria, so I was on my own.

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"The team went away to Tasmania to play finals and they did what they did in Perth. I just felt so isolated from that.

"And then everyone went away on holidays and I didn't see anyone for three or four months from the club. It was certainly isolating, but not the fault of anyone."

Almost 12 months on, Bruce is back playing AFL footy.

But his experience of watching his side make a remarkable run to last year’s Grand Final still makes him somewhat uncomfortable.

"It was one of the weirdest experiences I've ever been through," Bruce recalls, candidly.

"I was so happy for everyone in the team. I was so ecstatic for the hard work guys had put in.

"Seeing the success of the team was so amazing to see, but at the same time – not being there – kind of disenfranchised me a bit as well.

"At the same time I was a bit like, 'I kind of hope they almost lose so they can come home'. Then you feel guilty for thinking that. It was this constant pull of emotions and thoughts."

After finishing fifth in the home and away season in 2021, Luke Beveridge's side were comfortable 49-point winners over Essendon in Launceston.

The Bulldogs celebrate winning the First Elimination Final match against Essendon at University of Tasmania Stadium on August 29, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

That victory – in the first week of finals – was somewhat expected.

The following week against Brisbane, as young gun Bailey Smith announced himself with three goals, the Dogs progressed to the Preliminary Final after a one-point thriller.

"The one that was really hard was the Brisbane game," Bruce said.

"I was like 'we've done amazing here, we've won the first final and it looks like Brisbane have got this game won'.

"And then when 'Baz' (Smith) kicked his goal, it just kind of broke my heart again.

"Beating Port over there, I was just ecstatic for them. In the grannie…I was hoping we'd win to be honest."

The Western Bulldogs' Bailey Smith (left) and Easton Wood celebrate a preliminary final win over Port Adelaide on September 11, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

And at one stage, Bruce was adamant it would be his teammates on the premiership dais.

"When (Marcus Bontempelli) kicked that third goal at the 18 minute mark (of the third quarter) – I remember I was sitting with Lin Jong, who was injured, and another mate – and I thought that was it," he said.

"I thought Norm Smith to Bont and the show's over."

Melbourne went on to kick the next 12 goals to break their 57-year flag drought.

Meanwhile, Bruce was only in the infancy of his recovery.

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And as he would discover, it would challenge every fibre of his resilience and determination, with the 30-year-old even considering retirement.

"There were certainly a lot of setbacks along the way and, at times, I felt like I was probably never going to play again," Bruce said.

"I felt like I was in constant pain with the knee and things healing.

"Every morning I was waking up in chronic pain. I haven't got much cartilage in my knee so there's a lot of bone-on-bone. 

"The re-loading phase…it just felt like every time I'd take a step forwards it would just be another step back.

"I was probably being a little dramatic at times, but when you're in that mindset and on your own it can be really tough and really challenging."

Luckily for Bruce – and, indeed, the Western Bulldogs' forward line – his will to return was stronger than the opposing forces.

While his return match last weekend against the Saints was far from his best, it was one Bruce will remember fondly.

Josh Bruce celebrates with Western Bulldogs fans after defeating St Kilda in round 18 at Marvel Stadium on July 15, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

"It was unbelievable being back out there and playing the game I love," Bruce said with a big smile.

"I didn't have too much impact on the score sheet or (have many) kicks, marks or handballs, but it's bigger than that for me.

"It's good to be back out there."