West Coast’s leaping machine has beaten the Fremantle giant – and it’s set to cause a stir.
Debate will rage after Eagles ruckman Nic Naitanui pipped Fremantle’s 211cm Goliath Aaron Sandilands for selection in the preliminary 40-man All-Australian squad on Tuesday.
The selection of North Melbourne’s Todd Goldstein was always a lock, but many expected Sandilands to edge out Naitanui for the second ruck berth.
Naitanui is by no means guaranteed to make the final 22-man team.
But his teammate Andrew Gaff, who also earned selection in the preliminary squad, said Naitanui deserved to be rewarded for his hot form.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Gaff said of the 2012 All-Australian.
“He’s renowned for tapping it to Luke Shuey and Matt Priddis all day, but he’s also been following up around the ground as well.
“In the last three or four weeks, he’s been probably our best player.
“You are in awe. When guys want the ball in a certain spot, he always puts it within in a couple of centimetres of that spot.”
Sandilands has averaged a career-best 43.5 hit-outs per game this year compared to Naitanui’s 33.8.
But the sheer effectiveness of Naitanui’s taps, plus his 17 goals, appears to have gotten him over the line.
West Coast’s hopes of beating Hawthorn in Friday night’s qualifying final at Domain Stadium will rest largely on the performance of Naitanui.
The 25-year-old was dealing with the death of his mum in Fiji when West Coast hosted the Hawks in round 19.
Hawthorn came from behind to win that match by 14 points, with the Eagles hammered at the ruck contests once Scott Lycett tired late in the match.
West Coast had five nominations in the preliminary All-Australian squad, with defender Jeremy McGovern, Coleman Medal winner Josh Kennedy, and reigning Brownlow medallist Priddis joining Gaff and Naitanui.
Gaff has averaged 30 possessions per game this season in his best year to date.
The 23-year-old said the advice of assistants Adam Selwood and Brady Rawlings had been crucial in helping him to deal with tight tags.
“The compliment of coaches putting people on you starts to wear a little thin after a while when you start struggling a little bit,” Gaff said.