When the Western Bulldogs were rising in the mid to late 2000s, Adam Cooney, Ryan Griffen and Farren Ray were close mates, with laddish tendencies. There was another member of the group, all drafted between 2003 and 2005, and even though he was the youngest, Shaun Higgins had his head screwed on a little more tightly.
“Hes always been very mature, Higgo,” Ray recalled this week.
“But he lets his hair down more than guys give him credit for. At the right time hell still have a beer and that. But he was always destined for leadership, Higgo. He was always more mature than me, Adam Cooney, Ryan Griffen and that. We were pretty young and raw.”
Its taken until his 13th season, but Higgins is being recognised as one of the AFLs elite. He's averaging career highs for disposals, contested possessions, uncontested possessions, score assists, inside 50s and clearances.
Its not like he hasnt been a very good player before. He was in the All-Australian squad in 2015 – his first year at North Melbourne – and won Norths best and fairest last year. But this year his form is getting more attention, perhaps a result of the Kangaroos unlikely assault on a finals spot.
"Its time to acknowledge Shaun Higgins as one of the top 10 players in the competition,” premiership coach Paul Roos said on Fox Footy this week.
A classy if injury-prone forward for nine years at the Bulldogs, Higgins, 30, has established himself as a midfield star at Arden Street, with his immense skill complementing an unsung hard edge. That toughness came to the fore in a sickening collision with Hawthorns Ryan Burton in round five, and again last Sunday when he was met heavily by Brisbane Lion Mitch Robinson, an incident for which Robinson was fined.
The Burton hit, which concussed Higgins and left him needing plastic surgery to repair a nasty wound to his lip, had come hours after Higgins wife Heidi had given birth to daughter Rosie. Teammates had joked to him afterwards that Higgins – who still remembered the birth – had actually become the father to twins.
Thankfully Higgins missed only one game from that concussion, but the trend over his career has been for lengthy stints on the sidelines. Higgins injury history is like a guide to sports medicine. Knee, ankle, foot, elbow, hamstring – Higgins has hurt them all.
Its why hes been limited to just 193 games, despite being part of a finals list six times. In contrast, Nathan Jones, the man taken immediately after Higgins in the 2005 draft, has played 250 despite Melbourne not making the finals since 2006.
Higgins has continued to persevere, though, and is finally living up to his immense potential.
Kangaroos assistant coach Jarred Moore said Higgins dedication had been clear since he joined the club.
“I reckon hes always been a real professional bloke, and always looks after his own body, knows his body really well, knows his game in and out, too,” Moore told The Age.
“Hes played a lot more forward during his career, and in his transition to midfield he just wanted to learn. He went to work, looked at a lot of vision, did a lot of work at training to get himself up in those areas and play to strengths.
“For him, the running patterns were different obviously as a midfielder and a forward. He wanted to get better with where he should be running and receiving the ball and when to challenge opponents.”
Higgins is also a member of Norths leadership group, with Moore highlighting Higgins guidance of the sides emerging players.
“Hes always good with trying to help the young blokes, especially when they come to the midfield and are able to relate to him. Hes still learning that sort of thing.
“Hes been really good with making sure theyre all across the game plan.”
Norths midfield has a different look this year. With captain Jack Ziebell playing primarily as a forward, the Roos reputation of having a one-paced on-ball brigade can no longer be justified.
“Jed Andersons been really good in there, real energy, tackles really well. Jy Simpkin the same. Really skilful player and hes a hard worker and hes quick on his feet, he tackles well, presses well. Hes added another element to the game now. When you add those two, who are really in your face and trying to pressure, along with Ben Cunnington and Higgins, its a better balance,” Moore said.
Ray, still a close mate of Higgins, left the Dogs for St Kilda at the end of 2008. The pair were reunited when Ray joined the Roos at the tail end of his career, with Ray suggesting that Higgins decision to leave the Whitten Oval had turned out to be a very sound one, even though he missed the 2016 premiership.
“When he first got to the Bulldogs, he played really well. He flashed onto the scene. I remember him playing some really good football for the Dogs, and kicking a lot of running goals, a lot of running bounces and goals on the run, I remember,” Ray said.
“You could always see when Higgo was fully fit and playing and inside, he was a class above. His skills on both sides of his feet, and his goal sense is just unbelievable.
“If you get him around goals, hes as good a goalsneak as youll get. Hes just got that natural goal sense that most players dont have.”
Ray keeps an eye on Higgins' form, and is happy to see his friend thriving.
“Hes gone through quite a few injuries, which held him back a bit.
“No doubt there would have been [self] doubt … like every player.”
The picture painted of Higgins is a glowing one. But no one is perfect. Although asked if he had any closing thoughts, Moore offers just one.
“Hes terrible at golf!”
Daniel is an Age sports reporter.
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