NIC Naitanui's creativity with his ruckwork is unparalleled and enthralling.

The West Coast star soars to heights that others simply can't reach, and through his dominance the Eagles average more centre bounce clearances than any other team in the competition.

After Geelong lost to West Coast in round nine, Cats coach Chris Scott joked that the worst part about kicking goals against the Eagles was that the ball would go right back to the centre, where Naitanui could break the game open again. 

01:11 Mins
Published on

Match Previews R12: West Coast v Hawthorn

Sportsbet's Nathan Brown and Matthew Richardson preview the game between the Eagles and Hawks at Optus Stadium

Published on

Opposition coaches would understandably have a hard time working out how to nullify Naitanui, with the Eagles having a number of set plays and counters that seem almost impossible to stop.

'MESMERISED' Cats coach lauds Naitanui's masterclass

When looking at Naitanui's ruck craft, the first thing you need to consider is where he likes to hit the ball, and the second is trying to decipher why each midfielder is standing where they are.  

Imagine the centre circle is a clock – from Naitanui's eyes, a hit directly forward is 12 o'clock, directly behind is six o'clock, to the left would be nine o'clock and to the right is three o'clock.

Long-time AFL opposition analyst Rob Harding believes Naitanui has three key hitout zones, and the Eagles can generate devastating centre clearances with each of them.

"His most dangerous hits are 12 (either to a big midfielder as the target or the ones where he hits and follows up himself), then the wraparounds at eight and four that often release the dynamic mids into space," Harding told AFL.com.au.

The 12

Naitanui is often praised for his deft touch, but he's got the power to smash the ball a long way forward to give the stronger-bodied midfielders in Dom Sheed, Jack Redden and Elliot Yeo a chance to push their opponents underneath the ball and then sprint into wide open space.

Naitanui also averages 2.7 centre clearances per game himself, ranked 'elite' on StatsPro.

Next time you watch an Eagles game, you'll see that most of his own centre clearances come from the '12' hit where he launches it forward and follows up at ground level.  

In the below clip, the ball is closer to Naitanui's side after an awkward bounce, making it tougher for a 12 hitout to work.

With the umpire focused on the ruck contest, Sheed draws his opponent Tyson Stengle in before shoving him forward, ending up in plenty of space to generate an easy inside 50.

In this second video, Sheed again draws his opponent in Tom Papley towards the ball before wrong-footing him with a fake, bursting forward for the gather and handball back to Naitanui.

The eight and four

With the umpire often running back into the three and nine hitting zones, the more elusive Eagles midfielders in Tim Kelly, Luke Shuey and Andrew Gaff feast off the wraparound touches to zones eight and four.

With Naitanui being a right-hander, the eight spot is easier for him to guide the ball to and suits the left footers in the side such as Sheed and Gaff.

THE LADDER Where is your team sitting?

The four spot works the same way, but if you raise your right hand and face it outwards, you'll understand how uncomfortable that is and why it's hard to generate power there.

The four is an excellent way for Naitanui to break up the predictability of his ruck work and would work in the same way that a wrong'un or an inswinger would work in cricket as a surprise tactic.

You'll also see the Eagles run some incredible set plays like this one against Geelong, where Shuey starts as what Patrick Dangerfield might have assumed will be as a defensive midfielder in the four slot.

"Shuey wraps behind Naitanui for the hit, and Yeo as the sweeper just holds his man out," Harding explains.

"For the Cats, Dangerfield and (Cam) Guthrie have to hold their positions and hand over (switch opponents) Kelly and Shuey, or lock on and pressure both their opponents.

Double crossovers

It's pretty common to see a player charge from their starting spot around to the other side, but the Eagles are adept at creating diversions and throwing off their opponents.

Adelaide's Ben Keays was closely manning Gaff in the below clip, but Matt Crouch was playing his usual ball-hunting role and gave Sheed space.

"The Crows are tight man-on-man and won't handover a three-nine crossover with Sheed wrapping around onto his left," Harding explains.

"The giveaway on the hit is that Gaff and Sheed are both left-footers, so the preferred hit will be to Sheed running onto his left.

Organised chaos

You might have seen this clip of Josh Kennedy bobbing up for a goal before, and it's exactly why Naitanui's skill set is so important.

Usually in the forward line, a key forward might set a block for a midfielder to get into space.

Instead, Kelly sets a block and Kennedy is able to beat Harry Taylor off the mark in a spontaneous play that was initiated from a quick bit of eye contact between Naitanui and Kennedy.

Naitanui is less dominant in the around-the-ground stoppages than his counterparts in Todd Goldstein, Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy, but his talent allows the Eagles to roll the dice and get experimental to catch the opponent off guard.