Player Feature: Jai Newcombe

111 kilometers from the hustle and bustle of Melbourne and nestled gently in the wide-open expanse of South Gippsland you’ll find Poowong.

It’s a town defined by its dairy farming heritage, with rolling green hills that wouldn’t be out of place on a postcard depicting the north of England.

There’s a primary school, swimming pool, post office, supermarket and a cemetery; if you’re in need of something that can’t be found at any of those, Warragul is a short drive north.

For anyone familiar with towns like Poowong, there’s a strong emphasis on good will, sense of community, hard work and the opportunities they’ll bring.

As is often the case, it’s the local football club where those elements collide to build character and confidence for both the community as a collective and in individuals.

For 19-year-old Jai Newcombe, the lessons learned playing in the black and white of the Poowong Magpies and on the fields of the Ellinbank & District Football League have him on the verge of something very special.

Unable to secure a place in the Gippsland Power squads in his 16th, 17th and 18th years, Newcombe finally made the grade in 2020, suggesting a maturation that had him tracking in the right direction. Sadly, COVID put pay to whatever that opportunity might’ve become.

Fast forward a year and he’s one of seven Box Hill Hawks to have featured in every match of the nascent 2021 season, is one of the first magnets on Sam Mitchell’s whiteboard and, crucially, has catapulted into mid-season draft calculations.

“It’s been good,” Newcombe says of his start to life at City Oval, in typically understated fashion.

“Thinking about the standard I’ve played at before and my experiences here to date, I’m happy with my form.

“I’ve built with each game, I feel like I’m getting better and more comfortable at the level each week.”

Though quietly spoken, Newcombe plays with a presence and confidence that belies his years and experience. To watch him you wouldn’t pick him as a young man whose only previous exposure at senior level was as a 17 and 18-year-old with Poowong, let alone one without meaningful NAB League development under his belt.

In five short weeks he has been transformed from a relative unknown into a dynamic AFL prospect, equally as adept at extracting the ball from the source as he is opening the game up with his spread from contest and booming right foot.

Having made the transition to state league football look easy, when asked about the hardest part of adjusting to life at this level Newcombe’s answer is as humble and uncomplicated as his footy.

“Initially the pace was something I needed to adjust to.

“Then there’s the physicality of VFL footy. Even though games are played at a high tempo, it’s so physical from start to finish.

“So, adjusting to those two things has been the biggest challenge for me.

“I want to bring pressure around the contest, bring my strengths to the game, get on the inside and allow our outside users to do their thing.”

It’s serendipitous that his first senior coach at this level should be Sam Mitchell, a man who first walked through the gates of City Oval with everything needed to succeed at the elite level bar the opportunity.

Like Mitchell, by virtue of outstanding performances that opportunity could come quickly.

“Sam’s been massive for me.

“Being a Hawks fan growing up I was initially a little star struck. I’d watched him play for so long, so to be able to learn from him, lean on him and have his coaching has been so big for me.

“The support from Sam, the coaches, my teammates and everyone else at the Club has been amazing. It’s put me in this position.

“Obviously everyone dreams of playing at the elite level as a young kid, so be inching closer really drives me to keep working hard and improving.”

In his second year of a building apprenticeship being completed out of Warragul, Newcombe juggles his work with footy, making the long commute from home to Box Hill and back again twice a week for training.

Tuesday and Thursday are the most gruelling days, with our number seventy-two on the go non-stop from the time he clocks on at seven until he walks through door following training at nine “on a good night.”

When asked if he’d nominated for the upcoming mid-season draft Newcombe flashes the wry smile fast becoming his trademark and nods. A moment later he confirms there’s been a little bit of interest, but he remains focused on the here and now.

“The whole process to get to this point has happened so quickly.

“I played a practice match for Box Hill at the start of 2020. ‘Naps’  [Box Hill Hawks GM – VFL and VFLW Football, Daniel Napoli] stayed in touch and organised for me to come back down in November.

“I’ve loved every minute of my time here. From pre-season to today, it’s flown by.

“I try to stay as grounded as I can [about any interest]. You can never be sure what’s going to happen, so I try not to get ahead of myself.

“Mum and Dad have been really great with that – all of their support has been great – so I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and see where the journey takes me.”

As for what happens in the immediate future, again Newcombe is more measured than a 19-year-old can reasonably be expected to be.

“I want to keep playing consistent footy, perform my role each week and provide as much as I can for the team.

“For me 2021 is about building as a player and a person, listening, learning and using everyone here to get better.

“And, importantly, achieve team success at the end of it all.”

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