There was only one positive for Pat Lipinski when he boarded a flight home from Launceston at the start of March. He knew exactly what was to come. He knew how long it took. And he knew what it took to put his shoulder back together.
Lipinski had only just returned from the shoulder reconstruction he underwent last October when he dislocated his left shoulder in Collingwood's final practice match against Hawthorn at University of Tasmania Stadium in early March.
Five months of work for zero reward.
After taking a few weeks to come to terms with the harsh reality he was going to have to do it all again, Lipinski put his head down and got to work on getting back before the Magpies' mid-season bye in round 14.
The 24-year-old beat that target by a week to return just in time for the King's Birthday blockbuster against Melbourne and has now played the past four games for the premiership favourites.
"I was obviously incredibly flat that I did my shoulder again. I had a few weeks where I was pretty flat. Watching round one and the boys against Geelong, I was almost in tears watching because I'd just done all this rehab and pre-season," Lipinski told AFL.com.au after the Magpies' win over the Western Bulldogs on Friday night.
"It was disappointing, but it was better it happened at the start of the year, rather than now. At least I can play at the good part of the season. I knew straight away that I could get back by the bye, so I had at least 10 games to get back for. I did my rehab really well and was able to get back before the bye. That was a nice little win and now I'm starting to build into the season."
The first couple of months after surgery barely involved any crossover with the main group on the track. Lipinski was confined to bashing the pedals on the bike and building strength in the gym to start with. Then he started running on the track at Olympic Park, before incrementally increasing his weights sessions and his time with the main group.
Craig McRae monitored his progress closely. That's why the second-year coach was unequivocal in his belief that the former Western Bulldogs midfielder would play as soon as he was ready to go.
"I knew exactly what to do because I had legit just done it 20 weeks before that. I was back in training for four weeks before I did it, which made it easier," Lipinski said.
"I was probably doing seven or eight gym sessions a week there with legs and uppers in rehab. Weights at 7am then do my running or train with the boys, then in the afternoon I'd do lower body weights as well. I was very tired during that time and trained more than in pre-season. Back playing is a lot easier than rehab."
Collingwood finished round 17 on top of the ladder, level on premiership points with Port Adelaide but clear on percentage, after beating the Bulldogs in a game that paused for a moment in the third quarter to celebrate when Scott Pendlebury broke Robert Harvey's career disposals record.
When a clued in Magpies faithful roared inside Marvel Stadium, Lipinski stood at the back of a stoppage and applauded Collingwood's games record holder in the moments after Pendlebury collected the 9,657th touch of his decorated career.
"We saw LeBron break the scoring record earlier in the year. This was a bit different. I started clapping because it was a stoppage. Everyone started clapping," he said moments after AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan presented Pendlebury with the ball in the rooms.
"It's pretty cool to say I played with Scott Pendlebury, now the all-time leading disposal getter. It is amazing testament to his professionalism and how good he is."
Pendlebury has been Collingwood's best player for a long time – and one of the very best since the club was formed in 1892 – but now Nick Daicos is clutching at that mantle and is the Brownlow Medal favourite for a reason.
The 20-year-old added the Bob Rose-Charlie Sutton Medal to his growing collection of accolades after 29 disposals, 15 contested possessions, 11 clearances and two goals, producing another performance that showed he is much more than just a polished outside player.
"It is amazing what he is doing. He has been thrown into the midfield in the last three weeks and he is now one of the best mids in the comp," Lipinski said.
"He is having 10 clearances a game. People knock his contested stuff, but that is a strength. It is all his professionalism. He is obviously very talented, but the stuff he does behind the scenes sets him up super well to play any position and dominate."
Season one at Collingwood couldn't have gone much better for Lipinski. He played all 25 games and finished sixth in the Copeland Trophy after moving from the Bulldogs for greater opportunity. He has had to overcome two reconstructions since then, but is now poised to play a key role when it matters most this September.