West Coast Eagles coach Adam Simpson has all but confirmed the much-anticipated return of Nic Naitanui for Sunday’s season-opening blockbuster against Sydney at Optus Stadium on Sunday.
Provided Natanui gets through training on Thursday, the star ruckman’s comeback will mark 581 days since he ruptured his ACL against Hawthorn in round 22, 2016.
Speculation circulated during the latter stages of last season that Naitanui would be fit for West Coast’s finals campaign.
But after fending off months of conjecture, Simpson said the time was finally right for the club to unveil its star player.
“I want to see him get through training again and tick-off one more session and if he gets through that, he’ll play,” Simpson said.
“We’ve been really conservative in how we’ve brought him back – his training program, his minutes, his jumping, all those sort of things to get us to this point.
“I think we need to be a bit patient about what he’s going to deliver but the fact he’s in the side we all walk a bit taller.
“But it’s not all about Nic.”
“We’ve got to work through that – but that’s not new for Nic or any player. We manage how many minutes they all have.” Simpson on Naitanui potential game time.
— West Coast Eagles (@WestCoastEagles) March 22, 2018
West Coast experienced a mass-turnover of personnel following an inconsistent 2017 season, with 12 players de-listed or announcing their retirement.
As a consequence, Simpson revealed an unusually inexperienced line-up would be fielded against the Swans with “three or four” players expected to debut.
Liam Ryan, Jake Waterman and Daniel Venables all showed strong pre-season form and appear frontrunners to fill the Eagles’ forward line vacancies.
Smooth-moving defender Francis Watson and rugged midfielder Brayden Ainsworth also featured in West Coast’s JLT Series matches but look likely to start the season in the WAFL.
Willie Rioli – an early contender to play his first game – is still recovering from a hamstring setback suffered in a practice match against Fremantle three weeks ago.
Sunday’s fixture at Optus Stadium is set to smash the attendance record for a football match in Western Australia – 52,781 for the 1979 WAFL Grand Final – with fewer than 1,000 tickets available for the 60,000-seat venue.