The marks have dried up, but Nic Naitanui is rucking better than ever, according to his Eagles teammate Luke Shuey.
West Coast’s midfield has transformed from a weakness into a major strength during the club’s five-match winning streak, with the injection of Elliot Yeo and 18-year-old Liam Duggan proving crucial.
The Eagles (6-2) will be aiming to continue their hot form when they host Geelong (4-4) at Domain Stadium on Sunday.
But they are likely to be without Yeo, who has been offered a one-match AFL suspension for his high spoiling attempt on St Kilda’s Jimmy Webster.
Yeo, who has averaged 22 possessions and almost two goals a game during the club’s winning run, would risk a two-match ban if he decides to contest the charge.
Naitanui has been criticised for his return of just six marks in eight games this season, while his average of 11 possessions is hardly breathtaking.
But his deft tap work has been a key driver in West Coast’s midfield revival, with the 201cm star averaging a career-high 31 hit-outs a game this year as the club’s leading ruckman.
In Saturday’s 53-point win over St Kilda, Naitanui tallied 37 hit-outs; with 41 per cent of them going to advantage.
Shuey, who feasted on Naitanui’s fine work to finish with 28 possessions and nine clearances, said criticism levelled at the 25-year-old hadn’t taken into account the full picture.
“I think outside people probably judged him a bit unfairly,” Shuey said.
“His ruck work is the best it’s been in a long time – probably ever.
“I’m just happy I’m roving to him.
“He has had a shocking run with his body. He hardly got any minutes into him over pre-season for a number of years.
“He finally had a good run at it this year and he’s fit and up and going, which makes our job a hell of a lot easier.”
Eagles midfielder Scott Selwood made a successful return from injury last week, and he could be given the shutdown job on his brother Joel Selwood, who is a key driver in Geelong’s engine room.
Both the Selwood brothers and Shuey have copped ongoing criticism for their knack of shrugging their shoulders in tackles in a bid to win head-high free kicks.
Shuey didn’t seem fazed when the topic was raised on Monday, saying umpires should continue to pay free kicks for such instances.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve learnt that when you get the ball, you stay low (because) you’re harder to tackle,” Shuey said.
“We’ve seen some serious injuries the last few years – not just in AFL, but the State leagues around the country – guys losing lives and suffering serious neck injuries.