A game of football always starts the same way. Two players staring each other down, waiting for the siren and the ball to bounce. From there the rucks take over, and their craft is on show.
The rucks set the scene for a game of football, a microcosm of the battle ahead. A good ruck can take the ball literally out of the hands of the opposition, setting up a good day on the green.
For the past half decade, three rucks have dominated the league, with their own strengths and weaknesses — Max Gawn, Brodie Grundy and Nicholas Naitanui.
Gawn's sheer size dominates play, as does his innate ability to read the ball in flight. Grundy dominates the ball in open play, acting as an extra mobile number around the ground.
Naitanui brings something different. As a junior footballer at Midvale, alongside Michael Walters, Chris Yarran and Jeff Garlett, Naitanui always tried to emulate the smaller players, picking up tricks along the way.
A couple of decades on, Nic Naitanui is the perfect example of the stereotype-breaking ruck.
He might be the best leaper in the league, but he does his best work on the ground. He's as quick, fast, agile and strong as any other player in the league, regardless of size. No-one is better at making sure their team gets first use of the ball.
Rucks are expected to contest in the air, and dominate the physical space from the turf to the sky. Naitanui hunts the ball like a wedge-tail hunting its prey, the land-based leather-wrapped object of desire.
This is why Naitanui might be the most dangerous of the three, despite the struggles of his team in the last two years.
The one thing most fans and commentators notice about Naitanui is his athletic ability. More precisely, it's his ability to leap over small buildings with a single bound.
Coming into the league, Naitanui set the record for the highest running vertical leap, the skill most similar to the centre bounce contest.
Combined with his height, it means he is perhaps the most talented at dominating the start of play.
He's also shown it off by leaping over a courtside announcer at a Perth Wildcats game while throwing down a one-handed dunk.
Naitanui also took the 2015 Mark of the Year, cementing his name as one of the finest aerialists in the game.
Naitanui demonstrates this ability best in his ruckwork. Despite giving up 10 centimetres or more to the biggest rucks in the competition, he can almost always reach the ball first. The sheer power he demonstrates often renders blocks ineffective.
In the past three seasons, no ruckman has a better hit-out to advantage win rate than the West Coast tall. Not only does he win hit-outs, but he directs them to the advantage of his teammates. Last year he led the league with 87 score launches, and the Eagles scored the second most points per game from centre bounces.
Naitanui can control the ball to his midfielders at will. The Eagles take advantage, generating quick scores from clearances around the ground, especially from the centre bounces and/or closer to goal.
Controlling the restart is often a key to their deadly forward line being able to rack up goals. Despite their grouping of noted intercept defenders — think Shannon Hurn and Jeremy McGovern — the Eagles often struggle to effectively transition the ball from defence.
Around the ground, it's a different story. The traditional role of rucks usually had the big men playing a kick behind or ahead of the ball after the stoppage, drifting back to close off opposition thrusts forward, or pushing forward to give an extra target in the air.
One would expect Naitanui, with his prodigious leaping ability, to flourish in these roles, but in recent years the Eagles have largely been unable to find him in the air.
So far in 2022, Naitanui has failed to take a single mark through his first two games. Recent years paint a similar picture.
The Eagles are seemingly reluctant to use Naitanui as either a bigger body crashing packs or as a taller outlet player. He rarely gets used as a link player, foregoing his clear ability with hand and foot.
Naitanui averages fewer marks per game than almost any other ruck in the league. When he does take a grab, it is more often than not a contested mark.
They also don't feature him as a target up forward, tallying a total of seven marks inside 50 since 2016. For comparison, Charlie Cameron had eight marks inside 50 last week against North Melbourne.
Instead, Naitanui now does his damage on the ground, at the coalface of the game. When he fails to link up with a teammate, Naitanui often chases after the ball. There are few better ball-gathering clearance players than Naitanui, regardless of size.
This ability throws opposition rucks and midfields off balance, having to battle against an extra clearance specialist.
Almost all of Naitanui's disposals are contested, with a bigger percentage of contested disposals than practically any other player. He has long led the league for clearances by rucks, quite often too agile for his opposite number.
Naitanui tends to handball more than almost any other player, a product of the places where he receives the ball. But his kicking, cited as one of the reasons he originally slipped to number two in the 2008 draft behind Jack Watts, has become increasingly reliable over his time in the league.
Back in Midvale, Naitanui had to hit every post with a kick before he could leave training. That dedication to his craft has paid off.
The way Naitanui plays is very tiring. Few players face a load as big as bumping and jumping over the biggest players in the game in the air before banging into the sport's hardest nuts on the ground.
After a litany of injuries across his career, the Eagles are now careful not to burn out his prodigious talent prematurely. He is famously used as a burst player, rarely exceeding 70 per cent of total game time, far below most players.
It's hard to argue with the results of the move, with Naitanui's game moving to another level since his workload was shifted. He is almost always paired with a genuine second ruck, a player that often provides that aerial threat around the ground. The Eagles have also been fortunate to have players like Tom Hickey, Scott Lycett and Oscar Allen fill this role — all of whom could or have been first-choice rucks in their own right.
The burst role and supporting ruck-forwards mean other players have to take on a marginally bigger load — almost an indistinguishable one across the course of the game.
This year has been one to forget so far for West Coast. COVID and injuries have ravaged the Eagles, with makeshift sides running out for the first three rounds. They have already played 38 different players — as many as they have played in a season since 2000.
Even Naitanui has had to miss a game due to the dreaded "health and safety protocols", four words all West Coast fans will hope disappear into the ether.
Finals already seem firmly on the backburner, despite finishing in ninth last season. It's hard to have a true read on this year's Eagles, mostly because the footballing public haven't seen them play yet.
But day seems to be turning to night for this version of the Eagles, with several key contributors starting to reach the end of their careers. Naitanui is one of several Eagles who will be on the wrong side of 30 by next season, alongside Hurn, Kennedy, Shuey, Redden, McGovern, Cripps, Gaff and Darling.
The talent is still largely there for another run, if they can get it on the park at the same time. Time is ticking, especially with one of the modern greats of the game leading the charge.
Source: Google News