West Coast’s Nic Naitanui is that player most supporters love to love. He jumps in leaps and bounds like none other, leaving fans and commentators gasping in awe and singing his praises. It’s a fact that Naitanui’s agility is one of his most impressive tools in a pretty good line-up of skills.
With his physical abilities in mind when comparing Naitanui to his peers, he scrubs up relatively well and maybe that’s why he has become one of the most celebrated ruckman in the AFL in the past year or so. He was named in the 2012 All-Australian team last year with his teammate and fellow ruckman Dean Cox and is considered by many critics of the game to be one of the best at what he does.
However, let’s not forget that Nic Naitanui is paid, essentially, to be a ruckman. At 201cm, we really should keep that in mind. When rating him against the competition’s best ruckmen, you won’t find him at the top of key indicators of performance.
In the 2012 season, Naitanui finished eighth in the league for total hitouts and 17th for hitouts per game. His All-Australian team mate, Cox, finished the season ranked sixth and 12th respectively.
Meanwhile, Adelaide’s number one ruckman Sam Jacobs topped the competition for hitouts per game in 2012. Yet, shockingly to many, he was not picked for the All-Australian team.
Veteran sports analyst Mike Sheahan’s annual top 50 list had Naitanui as the second-highest placed ruckman at 25, only behind teammate Cox at 16, ahead of Jacobs at 27 and Shane Mumford at 41. Ivan Maric did not make the list.
Statistics are the best possible indicator we have; they give us the bare facts and are recorded to help AFL fans, critics and journalists determine who the best players in the competition are at any given time. Statistics are a mathematical representation of performance. They should, of course, be taken into account when forming opinions on which players are the top performers in the league and why.
If you sat down with statistical sheets on every ruckman in the competition and had to decide who you would pick for your team on stats alone, Naitanui is not going to be your first or even your second choice.
However, when he walks out onto the field and performs those two or three flashy things, we all seem to forget the facts. His blistering pace and that giant leap seem to blind the fans and critics and they don’t notice that he rarely defeats his direct opponent in hitouts per game. In reality, his inability to consistently perform well in this area compared to his peers does not make him a highly-successful ruckman.
We all love to watch Naitanui play because he is an exciting character. He represents the pinnacle of masculine agility and is a true performer in that sense. Yet, in a game where there is generally no more than two ruckman picked in a team, he needs to prove that he is able to consistently perform at the level of his direct opponents before we label him one of the best ruckman in the AFL.