Be very afraid – the real Nic Naitanui is back.
The star ruckman produced a match-winning display on Saturday to lift the Eagles to a three-point win over Gold Coast in Perth.
Naitanui has been battered by critics this year after making a slow return to form following 18 months of groin issues.
But if the past four weeks are anything to go by, Naitanui will be a major force in the second half of the year.
The 2012 All-Australian tallied 22 possessions, 34 hit-outs and six clearances against the Suns, with Gold Coast coach Guy McKenna conceding he could do little to stop Naitanui’s dominance at the centre bounces.
Even Naitanui’s non possessions were critical.
Whether he was providing deft knock-ons or merely busting packs, Naitanui caused havoc everywhere.
And it was his effort to compete for a high ball in the goalsquare while running against the flight that set up Jeremy McGovern for the match-winner.
Naitanui copped a massive whack to the face for his efforts, but it proved to be the defining moment in the 15.13 (103) to 15.10 (100) win.
“Unfortunately you don’t get stats for those little knock-ons and efforts that just disrupt the play,” West Coast coach Adam Simpson said.
“Because he’s so big and strong and powerful, he’d have to have 10 or 15 a game.
“I just think we’re seeing glimpses of his best, and for a longer period.
“For a guy who gets criticised a lot for perhaps not understanding how to get the ball, I think every week I’ve seen improvement.”
The Eagles are unlikely to make the finals despite improving their record to 5-7.
Forward Josh Kennedy (seven goals) and Naitanui were brilliant against the Suns, while Sharrod Wellingham made a welcome return to form after earning a late reprieve.
But the Eagles have several worrying problems on the injury front heading into Sunday’s clash with St Kilda at Etihad Stadium.
Midfielder Elliot Yeo could miss between one to four weeks with a broken hand, while Scott Selwood is no certainty to play again this year as the club assesses his worrying ankle injury.
Midfielder Luke Shuey (rolled ankle) is expected to return against the Saints, while Simpson faces a tough decision on whether to recall Dean Cox after resting the champion ruckman against Gold Coast.
Scott Lycett performed admirably in Cox’s absence.
And with Cox still undecided on his future, the Eagles may opt to give Lycett an extended run in the team if he can keep producing the goods.