Sport AFL Loss of ‘Nic Nat’ needn’t mean the death knell for Eagles’ flag hopes

Loss of ‘Nic Nat’ needn’t mean the death knell for Eagles’ flag hopes

Nic Naitanui AFL Round 17
Nic Naitanui appeared to suffer a season-ending injury in West Coast's win over Collingwood. Photo: Getty
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It would be easy to describe West Coast’s 35-point win over Collingwood at the MCG on Sunday as the ultimate Pyrrhic victory.

The Eagles were magnificent in knocking over the Magpies, putting to rest any lingering suggestions of MCG hoodoos whilst bringing the Pies’ seven-game winning streak to an abrupt end.

At the same time, however, they were dealing with the news that the most readily identifiable player among their number, Nic Naitanui, had again been lost to what looked for all the world like the most serious knee injury possible. And for many, that seems to spell season over.

Like a lot things about season 2018, however, it’s just not that simple. Of course the loss of Naitanui is a blow. But is it the difference between the Eagles being able to win this year’s premiership or not? Not in my view.

It was a weekend of results which even six weeks from now could well be seen as season-shaping.

Sydney’s last-gasp win over North Melbourne in a cracking game at Etihad Stadium and Port Adelaide’s upset defeat at the hands of Fremantle a little later on Sunday saw the Swans and Power exchange fourth and fifth spots and with it a critical double chance position.

Hawthorn’s shock defeat at the hands of Brisbane at its alleged fortress of Launceston could potentially end up costing the Hawks a finals spot.

And Greater Western Sydney’s narrow win over Richmond might well mean the difference between the Giants playing finals or missing out.

But it was West Coast’s victory which was arguably the most important win of any team so far this season, and for the Eagles, massive on a number of levels.

AFL round 17 West coast Nic Naitanui
Mark Hutchings and his Eagles teammates celebrates a goal during West Coast’s 35-point win against Collingwood. Photo: AAP

Away from home, they put away an opponent which had been on a considerable roll of form. They did so after being badly jumped at the start. And they laid to rest, at least for now, the popular mantra about their supposed vulnerability at the grand final venue.

Perhaps, on that score, the legend has exceeded the reality. West Coast is now 5-6 at the MCG since Adam Simpson took over as coach in 2014. Three of the losses have been by 19 points or less. And against the Pies, the Eagles looked as comfortable as they ever have at the ground, using its full width to effect.

They’re just some of the “pros”. The “cons” that come with Naitanui’s loss I don’t think add up to as much. Certainly, few if any clubs are as better-placed to withstand the loss of a key ruckman as well as the Eagles.

In a season in which West Coast has had to carefully monitor Naitanui’s game time after missing all of last year on the road back from a first knee reconstruction, Scott Lycett has been more than adequate back-up, and at worst kept honest his opponent, the highly-rated Brodie Grundy, in the second half on Sunday.

Lycett can go solo if needs be. But there’s also scope for West Coast to introduce Nathan Vardy to the fray should Lycett require a spell at some stage, or even potentially consider a tandem, admittedly a less likely option.

One thing Sunday might also have underlined is the extent to which the Eagles can make do sans Naitanui provided their midfield stands up to the challenge.

afl Round 17 Nic Naitanui West Coast
Nic Naitanui on the bench moments after injuring his knee. Photo: AAP

Collingwood is ranked top three in the AFL for contested ball, clearances and tackles, West Coast considerably lower. But the Eagles held their own in the first two categories and beat the Pies handsomely on the tackle count.

Even breaking even against Collingwood’s midfield is no mean feat. West Coast did it it thanks to great games from Andrew Gaff, Jack Redden, Luke Shuey and a superb stopping job by Mark Hutchings on the Pies’ Steele Sidebottom.

At either end, meanwhile, the reigned supreme, Josh Kennedy, Jack Darling and Mark LeCras all pivotal on return from injury in their forward roles, and skipper Shannon Hurn and Jeremy McGovern outstanding in defence.

Remain at least competitive in the middle of the ground and around the stoppages, and West Coast has realistic expectations of matching it with any side inside either 50-metre arc.

Most significantly, after a fifth win from seven road trips this season, the Eagles might finally have convinced the sceptics they can get it done also at the place they place the most important game of the season. And yes, even without you-know-who.

Read more from Rohan Connolly, formerly a senior football writer for Fairfax, at Footyology, or watch Footyology TV here.

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