WESTERN Bulldogs star Josh Bruce has taken a significant step forward in his recovery from a knee reconstruction by running for the first time since surgery.
The 29-year-old was second in the Coleman Medal on 48 goals when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the dying moments against Essendon in round 21, missing the Dogs' run to the 2021 Toyota AFL Grand Final.
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Now 173 days on from that cruel moment at Marvel Stadium, the former St Kilda spearhead and Greater Western Sydney defender is back running at Whitten Oval.
Bruce isn’t expected to return to full fitness until August at the earliest, with the Western Bulldogs hoping the gun forward will be available for another deep September run.
While Brisbane forward Eric Hipwood is humming and on track to return within 10 months of surgery, the Dogs will take an ultra-conservative approach with Bruce.
Bruce started running on the AlterG anti-gravity treadmill at the end of November and has spent plenty of time on the bike, in the gym and in the physio room with head of sports medicine Chris Bell overseeing his rehab.
The Dogs have two young stars who are hungry to play senior football this season in Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and Sam Darcy.
After being taken with pick No.1 in the 2020 NAB AFL Draft, Ugle-Hagan played only five games in the red, white and blue in 2021, while Darcy started at the club in December after the Bulldogs matched Greater Western Sydney's bid to take the son of club great Luke Darcy at pick No.2 in November.
Ugle-Hagan endured a difficult debut season following plenty of hype, but the penny has dropped over the pre-season with the 19-year-old impressing those inside Whitten Oval with an improved level of professionalism.
Darcy is still recovering from the stress fracture he suffered in his foot but is expected to transition into the main group closer to round one.
But while Ugle-Hagan and Darcy are set to gain some valuable senior experience in the absence of Bruce, the Western Bulldogs possess one of the best young spearheads in the business in Aaron Naughton.
The West Australian took his game to the next level in 2021, slotting 47.40 from 25 appearances and was able to spend time at home over the off-season, given the Dogs finished the season in Perth.
Naughton, who has turned heads in Footscray this month with his white headband that has a little bit of the iconic Bjorn Borg about it, was given an extended break at home and didn't return to training until January 14, along with fellow West Australian Tim English.
Toby McLean is also working his way back from an ACL – his second knee reconstruction – and is just over a month ahead of Bruce.
Young gun Cody Weightman is closing in on a return to full training after undergoing foot surgery in October after carrying the injury for more than 12 months.