AFL news: Nic Naitanui faces uphill battle to resume West Coast Eagles career in 2024 after Achilles surgery

Sources close to Eagles veteran Nic Naitanui were this week sceptical that he would play AFL again, reports MARK DUFFIELD.

The playing future of West Coast ruckman Nic Naitanui will be determined within the next four months after major surgery to clear inflammation from the veteran’s Achilles tendon.

West Coast will give the 33-year-old time to decide if he can push through an extensive rehabilitation program aimed at getting him back onto the field in 2024.

The Eagles are keeping a close eye on Naitanui’s progress knowing that he is one of four veterans whose spot on the list will come under question as the club embarks on its biggest rebuild in its 36-year history.

Naitanui had the surgery two weeks ago, is in a moon boot and is keeping a low profile as he monitors his own progress and ponders his future.

There is a split view on the three time All-Australian.

One camp believes that even if he plays a limited number of games next year, he would deepen the club’s ruck stocks, lighten the load on the improving Bailey Williams and apply selection pressure on the players likely to support Williams: forward ruck Jack Williams (19) and first-year draftee Harry Barnett (19). The slightly older ruckman Callum Jamieson, 22, could face list management scrutiny after four years on the list have produced 13 games. He has played only four times this season in a year interrupted by injury several times.

Others insist that if the Eagles are to properly manage this rebuild – and send a statement to their underperforming player group – then the club’s older players whose bodies have become marginal through age and injury have to be part of a cull that could stretch to 10 players.

Sources close to Naitanui were this week sceptical that he would play AFL again, let alone have any meaningful impact on the field in 2024 given his recent injury history and his battle with weight issues over the past two seasons.

Naitanui, the 2020 and 2021 club champion in seasons when he was named an All-Australian, played just eight times in 2022 and will not play at all this season.

That puts him in a group of vulnerable veterans alongside Shannon Hurn (35), captain Luke Shuey (33) and wingman Andrew Gaff (31).

Hurn, the club’s games record holder and premiership captain from 2018, will play his ninth game of the season against St Kilda this weekend after being rested twice and injured once this year. He doesn’t have a contract for next year and looks set to retire.

Shuey will play his seventh game of the season after hamstring and ankle issues. In a press conference earlier in the week he said he would focus on getting through the rest of the season before discussions with the club on his playing future. Like Hurn, he doesn’t have a 2024 contract and another injury between now and round 24 may spell the end for him.

Gaff is likely to be the most problematic of all the discussions the Eagles have. He signed a six-year contract at the end of the 2018 season which provided an escape clause after two seasons. That was not exercised. The final year of that contract, 2024, is believed to be worth around $700,000, leaving the Eagles at a significant salary cap disadvantage if he is retired without a negotiated settlement.

Of the Eagles veterans who have played this season, he has struggled the most for form despite playing all 14 games.

Naitanui has one year of a contract to run but it is understood less than $300,000 of the contract will fall under the club’s salary cap, which should make it possible for the Eagles to either negotiate a settlement or shift him into another area at the club in marketing, an assistant coaching role or both.

He remains one of the most popular and marketable figures in the club’s history and is regarded as an important person because of his reach into the community and influence across different cultural groups.

Mark Duffield

Mark DuffieldStaff Writer

Mark Duffield has had a career in journalism spanning more than 40 years after starting at the South West Times in 1982. As the Senior AFL writer at The West Australian he was a five time winner of the Geoff Christian Award for outstanding AFL coverage in WA. He was the recipient of the MEAA’s Clarion Award in 2022 for outstanding contribution to journalism in WA. He has also spent five years in Melbourne covering AFL football as a football writer and was The West Australian’s Melbourne Bureau chief in 1995.

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