WEST Coast cult hero Nic Naitanui has successfully negotiated his first AFL game in 11 months, with coach Adam Simpson welcoming the ruckman's intensity that "no one can match".
Naitanui played only 58 per cent of game time in the Eagles' six-point win but had 41 hit-outs and confidently flew for marks and jumped over Hawks Ben McEvoy and Jon Ceglar on occasion.
He required a second knee reconstruction after rupturing the ACL in his right knee in round 17 last year and watched as West Coast won the premiership without him.
Nic Naitanui celebrates his first win for the season with his teammates. Pic: AFL Photos
Simpson was non-committal about whether he would stick with the Naitanui-Tom Hickey ruck combination but was pleased to have the 2012 All Australian back.
"I think he slipped over at that first centre bounce – it was a slippery day – but he looked pretty normal to me and I didn't see too much disruption to his normal game, which is pleasing," Simpson said.
"There's intensity, then there's Nic intensity, and I reckon we saw that once or twice today.
"In the last quarter, the first bounce or two, we just saw that intensity no one can match and we've missed that."
WATCH The last two minutes
Beyond Naitanui's athletic gifts and physical contribution, Simpson was grateful to regain the not-so-obvious intangibles the 29-year-old brings to the Eagles.
"I think the AFL community is happy to see Nic Nat play. He's such a great person, and to see him get rewarded for all the hard work – it doesn't happen all the time," the coach said.
"To get him back, and playing and happy and smiling and joking around in the changerooms before the game, and the travel and the experience, he's missed that, so it's really good for us that he's back."
GAMEBREAKER Darling absolutely deadly in MCG thriller
Simpson was relieved West Coast managed to rally from an eight-point deficit midway through the final term after what he described as a "poor" third quarter.
The Eagles, who improved to 10-4 on the season, led by 20 points at half-time, but conceded 4.7 to one goal in the third term and struggled to get the ball out of Hawthorn's forward half.
EAGLES WIN A THRILLER Full match coverage and stats
Losing Mark Hutchings (hamstring) for the second half didn't help West Coast's cause, especially without gun defenders Jeremy McGovern and Tom Barrass to stem the tide.
"It's getting tight, isn't it? Every game's important. But it probably has more emphasis on it now," Simpson said.
"There's not a lot of wriggle room if you drop one, but we're still trying to qualify for finals as quick as we can, so it was a really important win today.
"We haven't lost in Melbourne for a while, which is good for our players, and overall our resilience is pretty good.
"What we've built the last four or five years; it's really pleasing they can get to a stage in a game and really put the foot down to at least compete, so that's probably the most pleasing part about today."
Simpson swung usual forward Oscar Allen into defence, and he had two key last quarter moments after misjudging a one-on-one contest early in the game that resulted in a Conor Nash goal.
Allen hung onto a "magnificent" mark running with the flight of the ball, and briefly went from the ground afterwards, then later drove the ball inside 50 for Jamie Cripps' match-winner.
"We played him back today, without McGovern or Barrass – he'd been playing forward all year – so to do that, he's 20, in his (14th) game, we're really pleased to have him at the club," Simpson said.
"He's got leadership (written) all over him. He does the right thing at the right time."