NIC NAITANUI is back – and the champion West Coast ruckman has round one in his sights.
After more than 18 months on the sidelines, Naitanui made his long-awaited return to football in the low-key environment of a WAFL practice match on Saturday.
Importantly, he got through unscathed, playing 54 minutes for East Perth and tallying 14 possessions and 33 hit-outs at East Fremantle Oval.
Just as importantly, the 201cm big man appeared confident in his reconstructed left knee, leaping and landing on that leg at centre bounces and in marking contests – albeit not as highly, yet, as he has in his pomp.
"(It was) encouraging. It's a follow-on from what he has been doing at training. Nothing adverse. He looked pretty natural most of the time," football manager Craig Vozzo said.
"(He) probably didn't jump as high as we have seen in the past, but there are some encouraging signs. He landed well.
"I think we got a good outcome."
Not since round 22, 2016 had Naitanui pulled on the boots in a competitive match but it didn't take long for him to get back into the swing of things.
Despite lining up at centre half-forward, he was almost immediately into the ruck, and was clearly too big and powerful for the Sharks' 197cm ruckman Michael Cronan, who was far from disgraced against the 2012 All Australian.
Watched by West Coast's coaches and his teammates, Naitanui contested his first centre bounce at the six-minute mark and started to showcase his trademark deft taps into space as the match wore on.
To start the third term, he palmed a brilliant left-handed tap into the path of Luke Partington, before snatching the ball cleanly from the next restart and bombing inside 50.
As his opponent tired, Naitanui began to dominate stoppages around the ground, standing his ground and palming the ball down teammates' throats.
"I think he was a bit angry on the bench there for a bit according to the staff," Vozzo said.
"He probably unleashed a little bit more; got a bit higher, a bit more follow-up on the ground.
"(He) probably didn't think as much and got a bit of the ball."
Naitanui played 19 minutes in each of the opening terms, usually in short six-minute bursts interspersed with three-minute breathers on the interchange bench, and 16 minutes coming back from the half-time break.
Despite there being 568 days since he went down against Hawthorn at Domain Stadium, Naitanui didn't seem to be labouring excessively at any point.
The Eagles pulled their most prized asset from the contest at three-quarter time, with Naitanui finishing with five kicks and nine handballs.
He got his hands to several contested marking attempts but none stuck. Positively, though, he showed no hesitation leaping into packs.
Naitanui's one shot at goal after a holding free-kick in the opening term drifted left and didn't score from 40m on a tight angle in the right forward pocket.
While it was a long way from the bright lights of the AFL, Saturday's contest was a significant step forward for Naitanui, and the Eagles still hope he could run out for the season-opening blockbuster at Optus Stadium.
If he pulls up well and lines up in next weekend's scratch match against South Fremantle the Eagles could have a huge decision to make for the Sydney clash.
Twelve Eagles lined-up for East Perth on Saturday, with young forward Matthew Allen presenting strongly and Partington finding plenty of the ball.
Draftee Hamish Brayshaw didn't play any part following quarter-time after copping an accidental clip to the head from an opponent's leg.