WEST Coast talisman Nic Naitanui will make his long-awaited return to football in an East Perth practice match against East Fremantle on Saturday.
In a major boost for the Eagles, the 201cm ruckman will play his first competitive match since round 22, 2016 when he ruptured the ACL in his left knee against Hawthorn.
After feverish speculation about the state of Naitanui's knee and his availability for the early rounds of the 2018 campaign, coach Adam Simpson confirmed on Thursday his most important player will finally make his comeback at East Fremantle Oval.
Instead of bringing Naitanui straight back into the team for the final JLT Community Series hit-out against Fremantle on Sunday, the Eagles will ease the big man back via the less-intense environment of a WAFL scratch match.
"He's done everything we needed him to do (at training), so the next phase is to hit some bodies," coach Adam Simpson said.
"He's beaten up half our coaching staff and a lot of the things he's done is one-on-one.
"Now there's no intraclubs to play or internal practice matches, so the next phase is to get some combative work against opposition.
"We thought we'd do it at East Perth just to manage the minutes, manage the positionings and rotations and that sort of thing.
"But he's ready and we'll see how he goes."
Naitanui was spotted jumping at centre bounce work on Tuesday, the final step of his training he needed to tick-off before being cleared to return, and has been pulling up well after the sessions.
"Like I have been saying that's the measurement – how he pulls up from combative work at training – now he's ready for the next step," Simpson said.
"He's been keen (to play) but also he's aware of his body and what he needs to do.
"It's been 18 months or longer since he played, so that's why we've gone potentially down this track if all goes well (at training) today.
"I'm really happy for him. He's done all the right things, he's worked really hard to get his body right and this is the next step.
"I know you guys have been waiting for it but I've been waiting for it a bit longer."
Although the Eagles will tread cautiously with Naitanui, his return eases some of the concerns about their ruck situation after Nathan Vardy (adductor) was ruled out for at least four-to-six weeks.
While bringing Naitanui back for round one at Optus Stadium would be ideal, Simpson isn't going to rush his most important player.
"Round two would be pretty good too," he said.
Meanwhile, spearhead Josh Kennedy is looking unlikely to be fit to face the Swans in round one.
The dual Coleman medallist has been training strongly and was sprinting close to 100 per cent on Thursday but is behind the rest of the playing group after December ankle surgery.
"I'd say he'd be pushing it (for round one). He's training fully now, but we need to get a good pre-season block in," Simpson said.
"It will be the early part of the year – it may not be round one – but he's just hit the phase now where he can do everything."
Simpson declared the Eagles would be close to full-strength this Sunday, with up to "eight or nine" players likely to return against the Dockers.