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Nic Nat's special milestone

Gary Stocks  April 14, 2018 8:00 AM

Nic Naitanui becomes a life member of the West Coast Eagles tonight

Nic Naitanui becomes a life member of the West Coast Eagles tonight

Celebrations after a victory against Hawthorn deep into the 2016 season, which propelled West Coast towards an imminent finals campaign, were noticeably subdued.

Despite a convincing 24-point victory, the team song was missing a little of the usual verve, especially considering it came after a round 22 triumph against an opponent entrenched in the top four.

The reason for the mute festivities was a scene in the medical room where Nic Naitanui was supported by crutches, discussing the probability that he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament during a marking contest.

Champion midfielder Matt Priddis personified the confused state of the players; delighted to have dealt with the highly-respected Hawks, but few knew better what the absence of the game’s premier ruckman meant to the club’s prospects of pushing deep into the looming finals series.

That was Naitanui’s 146th game and as we all now know, he would not play his 147th match until round one of the 2018 campaign – the first game at Optus Stadium against Sydney.

During the 18-month gap between those two games, Naitanui endured it all. The mental anguish of not only missing a finals series that he did so much to ensure eventuated, but the reality that he would likely miss all of 2017 as well.

Being such a big man has some advantages, but standing at 201cm and weighing more than 100kg was not going to aid his recuperation from a serious knee injury.

Obviously, the club explored every angle, called on every available expert in the field, to expedite Naitanui’s recovery, both physical and mental. Every training session was meticulously planned, every action scrutinised. His return methodically planned.

Until he was given the green light, from the strength and conditioning staff and the medical department, to play for restricted minutes in a WAFL practice match for East Perth against East Fremantle a few weeks ago.

Attendance at these pre-season hit-outs is normally restricted to friends and relatives, but Naitanui has always been able to attract a crowd. And the fans flocked to East Fremantle Oval to watch his highly-awaited return.

So did the media. It was reminiscent of the entourage of cameras that used to turn up to watch Anna Kournikova play a tennis match. Every time she stepped on court, even against one of the Williams sisters, an overwhelming number of camera lenses were pointed in her direction.

In this instance 50 other blokes might have been playing, but Naitanui was the only image news editors wanted. 

The instruction from the Eagles sports science team was for him to ease his way through, but after a tentative start the competitive juices kicked in. He got through about an hour of football, enjoyed some physical collisions and actually relished the morning after aches and pains.

Step by step he satisfied all of the criteria laid before him and finally on Saturday night, against Gold Coast at Optus Stadium, he will play his 150th game, earning life membership.

In the last three weeks the athletic ruckman has provided a poignant reminder of his attributes. He has come back better than most outside the club had imagined, their memory of his impact dulled by the fading recollections of his sustained absence.

They had forgotten about the competitive beast that lurks behind that engaging smile, the nonchalant off-field persona that masks that of the match day warrior.

When he steps beyond the boundary line he’s a different man. He thrives on the physicality of the game. Loves the ruck work, his artistic, soft hands so deftly guiding the ball into the arms of a Luke Shuey, Andrew Gaff or Dom Sheed.

When the ball hits the deck, he is the absolute contradiction; tough, uncompromising, brutal. When those tight dreadlocks are bouncing off his shoulders it must be intimidating to be in the vicinity wearing the enemy’s colours.

Equally, those in blue and gold walk taller.

It has been exhilarating watching Naitanui’s return to football in the last month, but perhaps teammate Mark LeCras, who also plays his 200th game on Saturday night, best described it.

“One hundred and fifty games is probably the biggest milestone you can have at a footy club because it means life membership,” LeCras said. “For someone like Nic Nat to get that, I know it’ll mean a lot to him. It means a lot being able to share it with him as well because we are pretty close mates.

“Knowing what he’s been through, it’s been a lot of hard work over the past two years to get back playing footy. He’s in good form and he’s an important cog in our team.

“You just notice him so much when you’re playing. And for the mindset of the team, being able to get first hands on the footy allows us to get on the front foot. He’s a pretty special player.

“It’s just good to see. It gets the team up, but you just feel good for him as a bloke, that he’s got the confidence to get back out there and do those sort of things knowing what he’s been through over the last year. To see him being able to lay some physical contact and hit a few blokes – because I know that’s what he’s been missing – it’s good to see .”