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Be warned: Freakish Eagle hasn't lost his leap

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NIC NAITANUI hasn't lost any of his freakish athleticism and West Coast's players will "walk taller" when the star ruckman returns, midfielder Andrew Gaff says.

Naitanui is closing in on his much-anticipated comeback following this weekend's bye – 11 months after rupturing the ACL in his 'good' right knee.

West Coast has to decide whether to recall the prized big man for a blockbuster Thursday night clash with Essendon at Optus Stadium, or ease him back in a lower-key WAFL environment at East Fremantle, where he returned from his first knee reconstruction.

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Nathan Vardy's one-week rough conduct suspension and uncertainty over pinch-hitting forward/ruck Oscar Allen's (ankle) availability after the break adds to the selection intrigue.

Whether Tom Hickey could effectively ruck solo against Bombers big man Tom Bellchambers is another question for the match committee to weigh up.

 

Regardless if Naitanui returns against Essendon, Hawthorn at the MCG or even as late as the 50th Western Derby in round 16, Gaff is confident the big Eagle's impact will be felt immediately.

"I don't think he's going to lose any of his jumping, or marking or pace," Gaff told AFL.com.au. "I think he's going to be good to go. 

"Being a big guy like that, it's obviously going to take a bit of time once he is in the AFL team to get back to his best, but we're a much better team with him and teams have got to think long and hard about overcoming Nic Nat."

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Naitanui has been back in full training for more than a month and was originally pushing for a return close to round 10 before the brakes were pumped on those ambitions.

 

West Coast's 45-point loss to Sydney last Sunday highlighted how badly he can be missed, with the Swans dominating centre clearances (17-11).

The Eagles were also without midfield bull Elliot Yeo (calf) and coughed up two goals from the centre before any West Coast player even had a disposal, setting the tone for a ninth straight SCG defeat.

Since 6-6-6 starting positions have been introduced this season, West Coast has won the centre clearance battle just three times (-27 differential) and ranks bottom four for inside 50s.

But a lot can change with Naitanui getting first hands to the ball at clearances and then throwing his weight around at ground level.

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The Eagles onballers can be more proactive around stoppages, and Naitanui's presence should boost the reigning premiers in a variety of areas, including their psyche, on the run home.

"Can't wait to have him back, he's so dominant in the ruck but in the air around the ground and his pressure as well is really important to us," Gaff said.

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"We all love having him out there, and we walk a bit taller when he's out there with the presence he has.

"It will be great, not only for us, but for the fans and the whole competition to have him back because on his day he's one of the best players in the comp and one of the most exciting.

"He's so beneficial to our team and I'm sure us midfielders will enjoy the service he will hopefully give us. We saw how good he was straight away once he came back last year.

"If he's even half as good as what he was that first game last year in his comeback we'll take that because he's so important and needs only nine or 10 touches to have a really big impact."