Shaun Higgins. Photo: Paul Rovere
AN INJURY-FREE pre-season has given the Western Bulldogs' Shaun Higgins the opportunity to push for extended time in the midfield next season.
Higgins, 24, has struggled to complete the work required in recent summers because of injury and illness but has benefited this time from running with the elite midfielders.
He spent more time at half-forward last season, winning 27 per cent of his disposals inside 50 metres, up from 19 per cent in 2011 and 17 per cent in 2010.
But given the chance to spend more time up the ground, the 106-game veteran would add pace and clean ball use through the middle, an area the Bulldogs know they must improve in if they are to complement their hardnuts and trouble opponents.
''Hopefully, I am giving myself an opportunity to do that and play a variety of roles which I wasn't able to do last year because I was a little bit underdone,'' Higgins said.
''It's been a really good start to the pre-season. It's the first [injury-free] pre-season for a while. I have been able to get a bit of work in which has been nice.''
Sports statistics company Champion Data has ranked the Bulldogs 15th in midfield quality next season, but that ranking could improve if Higgins and a list that is the sixth-youngest continues to develop.
The Bulldogs, expected to tinker with their leadership structure, have worked on two key areas before Christmas.
''There has been a really big focus on our skill work and getting some running into the younger boys, which we felt dropped away towards the end of last year. They are the two main focus points,'' Higgins said. ''It's been a really enjoyable pre-season and really valuable for the young group.''
This has involved 16 mostly first and second-year players sleeping in the high-altitude room at Victoria University's ''high altitude'' hotel and spending time in its training chamber.
Higgins said mature rookie Brett Goodes, the brother of Sydney's Adam, would add depth to the playing list. One reason the club plumped for the VFL veteran, who had been the Dogs' welfare manager, was because of his precise kicking from half-back. ''He has actually surprised everyone how fit he has come back this year. He is running up in the midfield group, the first group, and his skills are great,'' Higgins said. ''He is a strong body and I think he will be really good value to our back line.''
Goodes, 28, has also been recruited to help the young talent improve their training standards later in the season when they traditionally begin to tire.