Naitanui stars as Eagles beat Hawks in AFL

Who needs a Brownlow medallist midfielder when you have Nic Naitanui?

When star Eagles midfielder Matt Priddis was ruled out of Friday night’s qualifying final in Perth, some pundits thought it was a fait accompli Hawthorn would win.

After all, how could West Coast counter the Hawks’ blue-chip midfield without their best clearance player?

But Naitanui had other thoughts.

Debate raged after Naitanui edged out Dockers ruckman Aaron Sandilands for selection in the preliminary 40-man All-Australian squad.

The people questioning that decision only needed to watch Naitanui in action against Hawthorn to understand his true value.

Without Priddis to do the dirty work at the clinches, Naitanui needed to be a dominant presence in the ruck.

And the 25-year-old didn’t disappoint, exerting his influence in the ruck and around the ground to help his side build a 32-point halftime lead.

When it comes to Naitanui, stats lie.

Some of his most-influential touches didn’t register on the stat sheet.

But they most definitely ended up registering on the West Coast scoreboard.

The way he busted out of packs was irresistible.

And he was also gentle when the occasion called for it.

With the ball dribbling at top pace towards him and Brian Lake, Naitanui leaned back on his Hawk opponent, stuck out his boot to trap the ball, before scooping it up to dish off to a teammate.

It led to a vital Josh Kennedy goal that gave West Coast a 19-point lead midway through the second quarter.

And when Hawthorn made a belated challenge in the third term, Naitanui limited the damage by standing tall in some key ruck contests.

Hawthorn might have won the clearance battle in the end, but West Coast’s exits were so much cleaner thanks to their Fijian jumping machine.

Naitanui missed the round-19 clash with Hawthorn after the death of his mother.

The Hawks came from behind to win that match by 14 points and Elliot Yeo and Jeremy McGovern were forced to pinch-hit in the ruck at times.

But with Naitanui casting a daunting shadow on Friday night, there was no coming back for the Hawks this time around.

Naitanui finished with 40 hit-outs, five clearances and 12 contested possessions.

And with Priddis set to return for the preliminary final, can anyone stop West Coast?

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