This Thursday night, the bright lights of the MCG shine down on the season opener. The Blues and the Tigers square off in a contest that will often give an indication of what is to come for each team. Running through the middle, and deep into the forward line will be a young man with exuberance to burn, but also with a year’s experience under his belt, a wiser Jack Higgins may be the player to make the biggest statement on the night.

It would come as no surprise to any who have read The Mongrel Punt over the past year – I watch a lot of football. Other than going to work, chatting with my family and sleeping way too little, watching footy, talking about footy and writing about footy is what I do.

As such, when i hear or read of people making grandiose statements and observations about the game in the pre-season, I roll my eyes a little and wait for the expected, and desired responses. A lot of stuff is simply said to get a reaction – I try to steer clear of that stuff.

But once in a while something jumps out and becomes a little too apparent to ignore, and over the course of the JLT series, I found myself wondering more and more just how good Jack Higgins could be? And could 2019 be the year he goes from being that funny, goofy kid with talent, to elite player?

A debut season that saw him average 16.2 disposals and 0.75 goals per game was impressive, but as Richmond stuttered and stumbled through the majority of their JLT contests (be honest Tiger fans – the team was not switched on for long periods), Jack Higgins was the one Richmond player who looked like he had not missed a beat.

He had 21 disposals, eight marks, and pumped the Tigers inside 50 on five occasions against the Demons, and backed that performance up with a stellar 19 disposals, seven marks and three goals against the Hawks. In the latter game, the Tigers trailed by 40 points at half time, and it would’ve been significantly more if not for the efforts of Higgins.

As the Tigers squandered opportunities, Higgins was the exception. He took overhead marks, kicked truly when his opportunities presented, and when forced to win his own ball, that’s exactly what he did. But it wasn’t just the offensive side of the game that Higgins excelled in; his efforts to curtail the elusive Luke Breust in a one-on-one contest in the heated (heated for a JLT match) last quarter were excellent. As Breust zigged, Higgins zagged, and the normally evasive Breust was unable to shake Higgins. It was something I hadn’t seen before from the youngster – he was evolving right before my eyes.

As the Tigers ran out winners, capping a remarkable comeback, the performance of Higgins was one of the very few that was consistent for four quarters. Trent Cotchin made his game-breaking cameo in the last quarter, and Jack Riewoldt woke from a first half slumber, induced by wayward kicking and terrible midfield decisions, to kick three goals in the third quarter, bringing the Tigers back in the process. But it was Jack Higgins providing a couple of goals of his own in that third quarter that kept the Tigers rolling along nicely.

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So, as the Tiger Train gains momentum into 2019, what can the little engine named Jack Higgins produce along the way to help that train roll onto its desired destination? And who are some of the players he’ll need to pass on this journey to not only win a flag, but to become an All-Australian forward in the process?

We went through Higgins’ basic stats earlier, and an increase in output in both disposals and goals per game is imperative if he is to make the All-Australian team in 2019. With 15 goals to his name in 2018, Higgins will have to make a serious improvement in that regard.

An AA forward slot will either go to an elite goal-kicker (Breust, Betts leap to mind) or a player who splits time between the forward line and midfield, and still manages over a goal per game (Chad Wingard in 2013, Robbie Gray most years).

Wingard blazed the trail for Higgins to follow. In 2012, Wingard averaged 12.5 touches and 0.47 goals per game in his rookie season. His ascension in the next 12 months was remarkable, leaping to 21.21 touches and 1.79 goals per game in his All-Australian second year. It is a difficult trek for Higgins to follow, but it is one I don’t doubt he is capable of.

The ideal stat line for Higgins this season is somewhere around the 20 disposals, and one and a half goals per game mark, with a total of around 35-38 goals for the season. It’s quite a leap from the 15 goals he ‘snagged’ last season, but as demonstrated in the JLT series, his ability to bob up and kick multiple goals in short order could see him end up with days where he wreaks havoc on opposition defences and goes home with a bag of four or five.

The other factor is whether he has worked on his defensive pressure inside 50. With Riewoldt, Lynch, and Caddy patrolling the forward 50, goals may not be as easy to come by at times, so Higgins has to add something else to that Richmond forward line.

With just 2.45 tackles per game to his name in 2018, Higgins was not the most defensive small in the game. When you compare that stat to other small forwards who work up the ground, you start to get a picture of what’s required.

Orazio Fantasia averaged 4.9 tackles in 2018, whilst Brandan Parfitt and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti sat right at 4.5 per contest. Luke Breust had Higgins comfortably covered in both goals (54 for the season) and tackles (4.1 per game), so the gauntlet is well and truly laid at Higgins’ feet.

Whether Higgins can pick it up and run with it this season may go a long way to telling us whether the Tigers can pick themselves up and dust themselves off after a disastrous ending to their 2018 campaign.

Long-term readers will know I am a massive fan of organic improvement over topping up externally, and I am willing to bet that an improvement in the conditioning and output of Jack Higgins will have more of an effect on the Tigers in 2019 than the recruitment of Tom Lynch. He’ll be faster, stronger and able to run out games better. A weapon in 2018, we should be getting ready to see a supercharged version of the kid who became one of the most sought after post-game interview subjects last season.

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So, who are Higgins’ greatest threats to becoming an All-Australian this season?

Eddie Betts looks like he’s jumping out of his skin to get the 2019 season started. His JLT form was electrifying, and he seems to have the agility back that was sorely lacking last season. His 2018 saw him return his second lowest goals per game average in the last ten years. He’ll be looking to leave 2018 behind as nothing more than a painful memory, as will most of his teammates.

Luke Breust is the incumbent in the role. With 54 goals and 16 touches per game, he is the benchmark.

The Collingwood quartet of Jordan de Goey, Jaidyn Stephenson, Josh Thomas and Will Hoskin-Elliott work well as a combination, and had 156 goals between them last year.

Higgins’ own teammate, Josh Caddy finished with 46 goals in 2018, and was a powerhouse around goal. It will be interesting to see how the arrival of Lynch impacts his game in the forward 50.

Then you have 4x All Australian, Robbie Gray, who can be picked in either the pocket, or at half forward. Jade Gresham is starting to push his case, and I’d be keeping a close eye on the performances of both Jake Stringer and Willie Rioli this season as well.

The competition is stiff, but Higgins has so much natural talent, and appears to have returned this season in fantastic nick. He strikes me as the kind of young man that, when given a challenge, takes it very seriously.

Sixteen teams bypassed Jack Higgins before the Tigers took him in the 2017 AFL draft. There’d be a good dozen teams already who would like to have their time over again right about now. That number may increase as the 2019 season goes on.

He may still be that young, exuberant kid, but there is so much more to Jack Higgins. If 2018 was his coming out party, 2019 might be the year he takes the competition by storm.

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