ST KILDA defender Nick Coffield is closing in on a return to full fitness after missing the entire 2022 campaign due to a knee reconstruction.
The 23-year-old hasn't played a game since he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament during a match simulation session at Mars Stadium in February.
Coffield reported back for pre-season with the Saints' first-to-fourth-year players on Monday and is expecting to transition back into full training with the main group after Christmas.
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"I'm almost fully back with the group. I'm doing some drills now, so it is coming along pretty well. I'm not doing contact yet, but it is all on track and on time so far," Coffield told AFL.com.au on Wednesday.
"If all goes to plan, January is when I'll be back with the group completely. By the time we start match sim, I should be good to go."
There is never a good time to tear your ACL, but Coffield's injury was made even more devastating by the fact the Victorian had almost completed his best pre-season yet, after hiring a running coach to help take his football to the next level in 2022.
"It was really tough, definitely. I think, as well, I felt like I'd had my best pre-season and I was in as best condition as I had been, so it was a kick in the guts to get a week or two before the practice games and go down," Coffield said.
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"But I think, touch wood, I'll be better for it; I've grown a lot physically and mentally. As long as I can stay healthy from here on, I think I'll look back on it as a positive experience."
Coffield has spent most of his time in rehab working alongside Jack Hayes, who tore his ACL against Greater Western Sydney in round six, weeks after he made a stunning debut, the 26-year-old having been added to St Kilda's rookie list via the pre-season supplemental selection period.
While Coffield was hoping to take the next step this year, the No.8 pick from the 2017 NAB AFL Draft has still managed to discover a silver lining amid a season on the sidelines, spent in the gym at RSEA Park and inside the aquatic centre at the Danny Frawley Centre.
"I think (I've gained) a bit of perspective. You can get caught up, especially as a young player, in the rollercoaster of AFL week to week, where it takes control of your life," he said.
"I know 'Patto' [Ben Paton] experienced it the year before me with his [broken] leg and he helped me a fair bit throughout the year – but being able to take a step back and realise that there is more to life than footy, although it is really important."
After 10 months of gradually putting his knee back together – and overcoming the little setbacks along the way that are normal with a reconstruction – Coffield is confident he can return to his 2020 form, when he finished fifth in the Trevor Barker Award – only seven votes behind runner-up Dan Butler – after playing a career-high 18 games.
"I know I'm capable so hopefully I can get myself in a position where I can do that next year. I'm pretty confident in my body but it will be a test when I do a bit of contact," he said.
While Coffield and Hayes are expected to resume full training early in the new year, and Jade Gresham is also set to return from a posterior cruciate ligament reconstruction at the same time, Jack Billings might require a bit more time to return to peak fitness after undergoing back surgery in September.
St Kilda's senior group will report back for pre-season training on December 5, when they will be greeted by a transformed football program under the watch of new senior coach Ross Lyon and football operations boss Geoff Walsh, as well as assistant coaches Lenny Hayes and Robert Harvey, development coach Brendon Goddard and high performance boss David Misson.