Eagle Nic Naitanui to return via WAFL

Star West Coast ruckman Nic Naitanui still faces an uphill battle to play in round one of the AFL season despite being cleared to make his long-awaited return via a WAFL practice match this weekend.

Naitanui, who hasn't played since undergoing a knee reconstruction in late 2016, will line up for East Perth in their practice match against East Fremantle on Saturday.

The Eagles will play Fremantle in a pre-season fixture on Sunday, but coach Adam Simpson said the WAFL practice match was a more suitable fixture for Naitanui, given the amount of time he's spent out of the game.

It will be Naitanui's first match since August 19, 2016 - when he tore the ACL in his left knee during a win over Hawthorn.

"He's done everything we needed him to do (at training), so the next phase is to hit some bodies," Simpson said.

Nic Nat is back. Image: Getty

"He's beaten up half our coaching staff and a lot of the things he's done is one-on-one.

"Now there's no intra-clubs to play or internal practice matches, so the next phase is to get some combative work against opposition.

"We thought we'd do it at East Perth just to manage the minutes, manage the positionings and rotations and that sort of thing.

"But he's ready and we'll see how he goes."

Simpson didn't declare how many minutes he expected Naitanui to play, saying they will keep it "pretty broad".

If Naitanui gets through the match unscathed, it would give him hope of appearing in the round-one fixture against Sydney on March 25.

But Simpson hinted that match might be a tad too early.

"We're patient. We're not in a rush," Simpson said.

"We just want to get him feeling good about his body, having confidence, and this is the next progression.

"Round two would be pretty good too (for him to return). We're not overplaying it or underplaying it, it's just where he's at the moment."

Fellow ruckman Nathan Vardy will miss the start of the season after injuring his groin in last week's practice match loss to Fremantle.

It means Scott Lycett is likely to shoulder the ruck duties against Sydney.

West Coast are also set to be without star forward Josh Kennedy for the start of the season.

Kennedy is back in full training now after undergoing ankle surgery, but the Eagles want to give him more time to get his fitness up.

The Swans were dealt a huge blow earlier this week when No.1 ruckman Sam Naismith was ruled out for the entire season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament at training.

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