Should West Coast pull a ruck surprise?
The Eagles must prepare for life without Nic Naitanui, but who exactly does West Coast go with?
During his six-game absence earlier in the season with an achilles tendon injury, the Eagles tried a number of different options to find a ruck combination that worked. Jon Giles, Fraser McInnes, Mitch Brown, Jeremy McGovern and even Elliott Yeo and Jack Darling have all had a crack at some point this season, as back-up to Scott Lycett.
Giles was brought to the club following the departure of Callum Sinclair, for the very situation that either Naitanui or Lycett would be sidelined, and it appears that he will given the first opportunity to fill the void left by Naitanui.
While Giles is the most adept ruckman of the group, his two games so far this season in Eagles colours have been underwhelming, and he has been exposed around the ground at AFL level. Giles has had standout games in the WAFL, but appears too cumbersome at the higher level.
Jeremy McGovern appears to be the next best, but while he was serviceable in the last quarter against a depleted Essendon duo, he was badly found out when given the role in the Collingwood game. McGovern managed just three hit-outs, with Brodie Grundy dominating against both he and Lycett.
Coach Adam Simpson would also be hard-pressed to remove his intercept king from the backline, where McGovern has staked claims for All-Australian selection this year. While the Eagles have reinforcements in the way of Mitch Brown and Eric Mackenzie if they were to move McGovern up the ground, neither player seems to be in the mix for senior selection.
Mitch Brown was inexplicably given the role in games against the Bombers, Kangaroos and Carlton, despite never having registered a hit-out in his prior 90 games with the club. Brown was clearly out of his depth removed from his more suitable position down back.
Jack Darling spent time in the ruck during the last quarter against Hawthorn and has been floated as an option in the lead up to the Adelaide game, but while his mobility around the ground could be seen as an asset, at 191cm, his height presents a serious disadvantage. Darling has booted 40 goals so far this season, as the perfect foil for Josh Kennedy, so moving him into the ruck also removes a serious weapon from the Eagles forward line.
Fraser McInnes has also stepped into the role for two games this season, with little influence, and is now recovering from a hamstring injury, meaning he will be unlikely to be considered.
So who else could be a replacement for Naitanui?
One option that would be outside-the-box and has yet to be really explored is youngster Tom Lamb. Lamb, in his second year with the club since being drafted, has played just the one game with West Coast, after his first season was curtailed by a knee injury, followed by a second season that has seen some inconsistent form.
Lamb has faced an uphill battle to work his way into the strong forward line that includes Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, but a role as back up ruck could be an alternative way of earning senior selection. At 193cm, Lamb is taller than Darling, and 2cm shorter than both Brown and McGovern, but his natural athleticism and jump would counter the height handicap.
Releasing him into the ruck could also free up Lamb from the pressures of being a young marking forward. As a roaming ruck, Lamb may be able to get more involved with the play and build his own confidence.
The question mark with using Lamb is whether the Eagles match committee would be willing to throw a youngster against potential seasoned ruck opponents during the finals. Lamb is only 82kg and the risk is he is monstered by an opposition ruckman.
However, in analyzing the finals-bound teams, there aren’t too many who have bigger-bodied rucks, or dominant 2nd ruckmen. Sam Jacobs, Todd Goldstein and Shane Mumford would be the most physically intimidating rucks that could feature in the finals, but one of Goldstein or Mumford is likely to be eliminated in the first week if the predicted North/GWS Elimination final eventuates.
Furthermore many of the other finalists aren’t noted for their strong ruck divisions. Hawthorn and the Bulldogs don’t possess high profile back-up options, while Rhys Stanley at the Cats and Sam Naismith at the Swans could be seen as manageable match-ups for the young Lamb.
It is expected that Lamb will seek a trade back to Victoria at season’s end, and that may be one reason why the young recruit has fallen out of favour at West Coast, but if the Eagles want to throw some X-factor into the finals, Lamb could be a left-field selection.
Longer term, West Coast need a viable solution to stay in premiership contention for 2017, and Rory Lobb appears to be that answer. Lobb is rumoured to be open to returning to Western Australia, and with only Naitanui, Lycett and Giles on the list currently as recognised ruckmen, the club must do everything it can to facilitate a trade to boost their ruck division.
West Coast are likely to face stiff competition from rivals Fremantle, who will be planning for 2018 and beyond without Aaron Sandilands. The Dockers are expected to be big players in this year’s trade period, as they seek to land Cameron McCarthy and Brad Hill, while Jesse Hogan may still be on their radar.
The Dockers will have plenty of salary cap room to instantly boost their squad, but while they will have a number of deals that they are trying to secure, West Coast should ensure they pounce on Lobb before the Dockers get a chance.
All in all, West Coast have a big challenge to keep their premiership window open over the next 15 months, and decisions made for the remainder of this season and the preparation of 2017 could make or break their chances.
Who should West Coast use to cover Nic Naitanui?