West Coast must pick Nic Naitanui, their best and only chance at AFL finals success

West Coast are not going to win this year’s premiership unless, the good fortune they have somehow been endowed with over the past three weeks continues.

The Eagles are not one of the best six teams in the competition. It took a flat, resting Adelaide and a justifiable but in my mind incorrect free kick call for the team to make it to this point. Most ratings system had West Coast around the ninth to 11th range heading into the final home and away game of the year – mine, Simple Rating System, reckoned they were the ninth-best team.

Here they are though, in the final six, the sun shining out of their collective arses. If they are to overcome the GWS Giants at Spotless Stadium, Richmond at the MCG, and then Adelaide or Sydney at the MCG over the next three weeks, they’re going to need more of that magic pixy dust they have bathed in to get to this point.

In other words, they need their star ruckman Nic Naitanui.

Naitanui has been on the comeback trail since tearing the ACL in his left knee on a dark night in August last year. He underwent a traditional surgical repair option, and has been gradually regaining strength as time has passed. Except by gather strength I mean ripping the shit out of tackling bags and doing all sorts of acrobatic wizardry that a guy half his size would struggle to pull off.

As far as workout videos go, Naitanui looks in pretty sparkling nick.

The Eagles have retained Naitanui on their injury list for the full season, with an ominous “late 2017” return date. Last week was supposed to be as late as 2017 was going to get for West Coast. He must be picked for West Coast to have any chance of winning this year’s flag.

Why?

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You don’t make it to the semi final weekend of the year every year – particularly when you’re a flawed team. Yes some upstart is going to tell me you technically have a one in three chance, but that’s not how the real world works.

If West Coast progress beyond this weekend, it is going to be because they’ve made some risky moves that have paid off. GWS are simply a better team across the park; better in the middle, up forward and down back. You can argue the toss over Richmond, but they will have an extra week’s break, home ground advantage, and a game style that would crush the Eagles. West Coast are categorically worse than both Sydney and Adelaide.

Bringing back Naitanui is the kind of risk that West Coast need to pay off to make it.

He is clearly a better ruckman than Nathan Vardy, Drew Petrie – combined – Dawson Simpson and Rory Lobb. He would stomp all over the game as a centre bounce ruckman alone, giving the Eagles the drive and performance from the middle which they’ve been lacking.

And you know what? We haven’t seen Naitanui play in a game with the new ruck rules, where his dominance can’t be quelled by a third man up. Can you imagine the guy in those workout videos above going up against the big, lumbering oak trees employed by the remainder of West Coast’s likely opponents?

Naitanui would provide the Eagles with a competitive advantage that they lack across the rest of the ground. It’s about as simple as that.

How?

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It’s going to mean one of West Coast’s make shift ruckmen makes way. Vardy or Petrie will have to sit out the game, and the rest of the season should the Eagles progress.

That’s harsh, but it is the reality of a team sport in a single elimination finals tournament. The team has to come first, and given what Naitanui can offer over one of these two chaps, it’s cold and callous but they’ve got to go.

Arguing that Naitanui can’t play simply because “you can’t drop” Vardy or Petrie because of their form and contribution over the year is a flawed argument. This isn’t your workplace where you need to include everyone lest you sow the seeds of dissent – it’s elite sport, and they’re professionals.

I would think Vardy makes way – at least this week. The Giants are down their clear number one ruck option in Shane Mumford, and given Jeremy Cameron is also out of GWS’ side Rory Lobb will likely spend more time forward as the second option to Jonathon Patton. It’ll lead to a makeshift ruck combination.

West Coast can therefore go forth with confidence that Naitanui’s tap work will be better than anyone else on the ground. He does his best work in the centre bounce, and if his match fitness isn’t 100% – and it won’t be – then Naitanui can spend most of his time in the centre square. Petrie can ruck up forward, and Jeremy McGovern down back.

It’s makeshift, but as we’ve found the Eagles are going to need to take some chances to keep their 2017 moving.

Wait, what?

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Despite this, it all comes down to Naitanui’s knee being in perfect, can’t-get-messed-up form, and his fitness allowing him to get through a full game.

Coach Adam Simpson might have tipped his team’s hand on this measure earlier in the week. Speaking to Channel 7 in Perth, Simpson said the Eagles would need to be sure Naitanui would be able to get through a “70 minute game”. That would equate to Naitanui being available for a little over 60% of the game, well down on his career average of more than 75%.

I think the case is pretty clear. If the risk is that he blows up at three quarter time, it is a risk worth taking. If the risk is that his knee blows up at three quarter time, or the interconnected nature of long term injury recovery means he is too significant a soft tissue injury risk, then the calculus changes.

At the very least, Naitanui must travel with the team. Surely he will, even just to head fake the Giants’ front office.

The Eagles are not going to win this year’s flag unless the rest of the year breaks right for them. They should afford themselves every opportunity for the year to break right.

West Coast must pick Nic Naitanui this week.