All-Australian ruckman Nic Naitanui is still targeting a round-one return for West Coast despite being seriously short of match practice as he recovers from off-season groin surgery.
The 22-year-old stepped up his training load this week, but has ruled out playing in the NAB Cup.
Speaking after an autograph- signing session at the club's Northam community camp yesterday, Naitanaui said he was itching to play after a long pre-season on the sidelines, but wouldn't risk rushing his recovery.
"The groin's pretty good. I'm back running again now so I'm just eyeing off the early part of the year, just track along the next few weeks and see where I'm at," Naitanui said.
"Everyone aims for round one but if it's too soon I'll reassess and see from there.
"I won't be ready for the NAB Cup. I'm just running and starting my skill work at the moment."
The Eagles begin their season with a western derby against Fremantle on March 23, and will then have a week's break because the opening round is split over two weeks.
Naitanui still hopes to play in the derby but the break could give him the opportunity to have more match simulation before his return.
"I think we've got the Hawks after that so it's another big game to aim for," he said.
"I'll just see how I go week by week and see where I'm at with the physios. Everyone wants to get out there and play on the field.
"Pre-season is a long time."
The Eagles will be counting on young ruckmen Scott Lycett and Callum Sinclair to step up and help veteran Dean Cox.
Both will be trialled extensively during the pre-season competition.
The departure of Quinten Lynch to Collingwood has also left a more permanent role up for grabs.
At 201cm and with a head full of dreadlocks, it's hard for Naitanui to blend in at most places, but he was more than happy to have a chat with the procession of autograph hunters who sought him out in Northam's cafes on Thursday and yesterday.
West Coast chief executive Trevor Nisbett said Naitanui, with an on-field talent that continues to flourish and a growing legion of fans, was clearly the club's most popular player since Ben Cousins at his peak.
"Nicholas is not only a unique player but he's a really unique person and I think that's why people warm to him," Nisbett said."He's affectionate with people, he's great with the kids and I think people realise that."
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