Nic Naitanui and Dom Sheed celebrate a goal in the 2020 Marsh Community Series. Picture: AFL Photos

IT TOOK a special player to make coach John Worsfold buy into hype, but champion ruckman Nic Naitanui fit that bill to a tee from the moment he stepped onto Subiaco Oval in his second AFL game.

In round 13, 2009, after making his debut against Richmond one week earlier at the MCG, Naitanui stepped out in front of the Eagles' home fans for the first time amid significant expectation, having arrived with pick No.2 the year prior.

He was quiet for three quarters against reigning premier Hawthorn, but the teenage sensation from Swan Districts erupted in the final term to kick three goals with his only three kicks in a game-changing cameo.

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In the small, crammed media room under Subiaco Oval after the game, Worsfold found himself caught up in the excitement, declaring: "Our team store opens Monday and there's only a limited number of No.9 guernseys in there, so get in quick".

Nic Naitanui and Brad Ebert after West Coast's win over Hawthorn in round 13, 2009. Picture: AFL Photos

Fast forward 11 years and Naitanui's antics in another come-from-behind win had an opposition coach "mesmerised", with Geelong's Chris Scott delivering a memorable line after one of Naitanui's best late-career performances.

"The problem with kicking goals against West Coast is the ball goes back to the middle," Scott said afterwards, summing up the profound influence Naitanui grew to have on games. "It's hard not to be mesmerised with some of the stuff he can do."

Naitanui announced his retirement on Monday as the third great Eagle to depart in as many weeks. But it is his exit that may hurt the most for fans, who won't have the opportunity to see the thrilling ruckman in action again.


In a media conference on Monday attended by players, staff, friends and family, Naitanui reflected on the fairytale finishes others had enjoyed at West Coast but said he was satisfied with what he had enjoyed already in the game.   

"Sometimes it just doesn't end up like that, but I'm content with what I've had," Naitanui said.

"My dream growing up was to play football but (also) to provide for my family. The club has allowed me to do that.

"If people ask me if I have any regrets about not playing on next year or not having a premiership, I've got a steady roof over my head and that's all I could ever ask for."

Naitanui retires a dual club champion (2020 and 2021) and a three-time All-Australian (2012, 2020 and 2021), playing 213 games across 15 seasons that provided countless thrilling marks and memorable goals. 


It was his ability in the centre bounce, however, that became his great weapon, after honing his "360" tap work with the use of wheelie bins as a young player and learning to hit the ball in any direction with varied force.

"I pride myself on that," he said in 2012, his fourth season. "At the start I could only go to certain spots, but now I reckon I can use all 360 degrees of the circle. That's helped me out a fair bit."

Midfielders Matt Priddis and then Luke Shuey headed a long line of midfielders who dined on the deft taps that Naitanui produced and would describe jokingly as "soft little snowflakes" for his midfielders to catch.

Nic Naitanui wins the ruck tap during West Coast's clash with Geelong in the 2011 preliminary final. Picture: AFL Photos

After knee reconstructions in 2016 and 2018, Naitanui thanked coach Adam Simpson on Monday for helping him reinvent his ruck work and extend his career after his powerful leap was compromised.

Simpson, who coached the brilliant big man in 125 of his 213 games, on Monday described him as the biggest on-field presence in the game and one of the "great ruckmen of all time".

One of his finest performances under Simpson came at the end of the 2021 season in his 205th game, against Brisbane at the Gabba, recording an incredible 22 contested possessions, 53 hit-outs and 11 clearances – all career-highs – in a desperate push to lead the team into finals.

Nic Naitanui in action during West Coast's clash with Brisbane in round 23, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

The other side of Naitanui's career was his off-field presence and ability to embrace being a role model. Former teammate Xavier Ellis once described him as the exact player the AFL would design as a superstar for fans to love and be treated well by.

It’s a responsibility Naitanui said he didn't take lightly, and the hospital visits he would quietly make during his free time from the club's old Subiaco Oval base to put smiles on kids' faces provided great satisfaction.

"I think the greatest joys I got out of football that wasn't playing on the field was going to some of those oncology wards at Princess Margaret Hospital and the power that we had," he said.

"I spoke to the boys about a little kid who wanted to eat his veggies because a player had told him to do it, not the nurses or his parents. It holds so much weight and so much value.

"I'm so proud to call myself a role model or an idol to some people. It's something I never take for granted."

Nic Naitanui at West Coast's community camp in Broome in November 2011. Picture: AFL Photos

A multicultural ambassador for the AFL, Naitanui said his role in the game had been "as much about what I do on-field as of-field".

Fulfilling the on-field part of the equation, however, became impossible in 2022 after a ruptured Achilles tendon, and Naitanui said there were no guarantees he would have been able to play next season.  

Contracted in 2024, he feared that going on to play a few extra games would have been selfish and hoped his exit would create space for others to fill next year.

In a career full of highlights, the one Naitanui said will stick in his mind forever was debuting on the MCG against a childhood hero who moved his own share of West Coast No.9 jumpers out of the team store.

"It was against Richmond, I was wearing No.9 and one of my childhood heroes, 'Cuzzy' (Ben Cousins) was standing on the other side of the circle," Naitanui said.

"He told me to take his jumper off and not to be wearing it. That was his first game for the Tigers against West Coast and that is something that will always forever stay in my mind.

"We lost that game in the end, but it's something I have fond memories of, and I think that will probably be the one thing I will show [my kids] over and over."