The Eagles will be without Nic Naitanui for the rest of this season, and possibly all of next year
ADAM Simpson’s raw emotion in the aftermath of Sunday’s bittersweet win over Collingwood will be felt by everyone at West Coast following confirmation Nic Naitanui requires a reconstruction of his ‘good’ right knee.
Interviewed in the bowels of the MCG, Simpson didn’t hide his heartbreak at the dawning realisation the much-loved big man is facing another painstaking rehabilitation.
If last time is any guide, Naitanui might not be back on a football field until 2020.
It took 19 months for him to make his highly-anticipated return just in time for this year’s season-opener after rupturing his left ACL and sustaining significant bone damage in round 22, 2016 – although how close he came to selection in last year’s finals series remains a mystery.
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Another stint of at least a year on the sidelines is a shattering result only 15 games into his comeback season.
But while West Coast reels from a slight twist of his knee and a major twist of fate, footy moves quickly onward.
Inevitably, thoughts will turn to the far-reaching ramifications, not just for this season, but for Naitanui’s future and West Coast’s looming list management decisions.
The obvious question is can the Eagles still win this year’s premiership after losing arguably their most influential player?
While it was only a small sample size, the second half against the Magpies without Naitanui should give them a shot of confidence.
— AFL (@AFL) July 15, 2018
In his absence, Scott Lycett stepped up and fought an even battle with an in-form Brodie Grundy, and the leaders steered the side to a commanding 35-point victory.
The Eagles booted seven goals to three after the long break, and leapt clear of Collingwood into second spot on the ladder.
It was their fourth win from as many games in Melbourne in 2018 and a huge tick for their flag credentials.
There is no doubt Naitanui will be sorely missed, especially in the finals cauldron this September, but the increasingly resilient Eagles have so far defied the loss of other key players and will back themselves to find a way.
Injury-plagued Nathan Vardy managed 22 games last year – far and away his best return – and that experience will be invaluable should West Coast call him up and continue playing two ruckmen.
Signing Vardy to a contract extension until 2020 in April was good business then and looks even better now.
Securing Lycett beyond this year becomes crucial given the Eagles’ thin ruck stocks.
The South Australian is a restricted free agent and his value has never been greater, with Geelong in particular on the hunt for a No.1 big man.
Lycett was robbed of the chance to lead the ruck for all but one game last season due to frustrating shoulder issues.
But Naitanui’s injury removes that potential obstacle to him recommitting in the west, possibly now with a bigger payday and longer tenure.
It is uncomfortable to contemplate so soon after his injury, but Naitanui’s future will become a major talking point.
He is believed to earn close to $1 million per season and falls out of contract at the end of 2019.
How much his latest injury will impact his next contract negotiations remains to be seen, but a reduced deal could have the silver lining of clearing future cap space to help convince free agency trio Jeremy McGovern, Andrew Gaff and Lycett to turn down rival offers now.
Naitanui will turn 30 early in the 2020 campaign and some are already voicing concerns his freakish athleticism will be diminished by another reconstruction.
His performances this year – and confidence to fly for two screamers against the Giants recently – raises hope he can return near his peak.
But the other big unknown now is how much damage he has done to his ‘good’ knee and whether the serious injuries will shorten his career.
With all this to weigh up, West Coast list manager Brady Rawlings has some decisions to make.
Provided Lycett re-signs, it is not desperate times.
He only turns 26 this September and should be entering his prime, and Vardy only recently turned 27.
Together they would be a handy pairing next season, and they can help ease Naitanui back as an impact player when he is ready.
But West Coast will need to seriously consider longer-term succession planning via the draft, and promising WA product Tim English could be a trade target, although the 20-year-old has signed with the Western Bulldogs until 2020.
Meanwhile, rookie-listed tall Fraser McInnes, who has been a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ back-up and played only 14 games, might now be signed up for an eighth season as insurance.
West Coast’s only other ruckman is project player Tony Olango, who has had his share of injury concerns and looks a long way off.
Back-up ruck duties at East Perth fell to 188cm midfielder Brendon Ah Chee against Swan Districts on Saturday, so the Eagles are hardly flush with options in the big man department.
Should Rawlings once again look at bringing in an experienced tall – a la Drew Petrie – on a one-year deal while Naitanui recuperates?
There will be plenty of balls in the air for him to juggle over the short-to-medium term.
But step one should be to lock away Lycett as soon as possible.
Source: AFL FOOTBALL NEWS