How do you replace the irreplaceable?
That’s the question West Coast coach Adam Simpson is attempting to digest as he comes to grips with the news that star ruckman Nic Naitanui will spend up to a year on the AFL sidelines.
Naitanui will undergo a knee reconstruction after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during Friday night’s 25-point win over Hawthorn.
Scans on Saturday morning confirmed the bad news, and Naitanui will meet with surgeons over the coming days to map out the best course of action.
Naitanui is expected to undergo a traditional knee reconstruction instead of LARS, meaning he will miss most – if not all – of next season.
West Coast catapulted themselves back into the premiership race with impressive wins over GWS and Hawthorn over the past fortnight.
But Naitanui’s injury has severely dented those chances.
West Coast’s form dipped markedly when Naitanui was sidelined for six games earlier this season.
Scott Lycett was serviceable in the lead ruck role during that period, but he failed to exert anything close to the influence that Naitanui wields.
And of greater concern was the back-up ruck role.
Mitch Brown, Fraser McInnes, and Jonathan Giles all struggled in the role, while the Eagles are loath to move intercept king Jeremy McGovern away from defence to pinch-hit in the ruck.
Simpson has flagged a shift to a more mobile ruck set-up during Naitanui’s absence, floating the possibility of using forward Jack Darling as a pinch-hitter.
West Coast are unlikely to finish in the top four, even if they beat the Crows in Adelaide on Friday night.
A loss to the Crows would likely see West Coast drop to seventh – consigning them to an away elimination final.
Longer term, West Coast are set to explore the option of luring GWS big man Rory Lobb their way.
The 206cm forward/ruckman is contracted with GWS next season, but there are reports he’s homesick and keen to be traded to a WA-based club.
Fremantle initially appeared to be his best fit, given their lack of ready-made key position players.
But with Naitanui now set to miss most of 2017, the Eagles could make a big play for the 23-year-old.
Lobb has booted 25 goals this season, including a bag of four in his side’s one-point loss to West Coast in round 21.