The ruckman has played next-to-no football this year. An ankle injury kept him to just three games this season and the last of those was in Round 17.
Forget the stats sheets – he played only about 60 per cent of the game – but his ability to affect contests in explosive bursts was noticeable.
It’s something the Eagles have missed and Naitanui has set the tempo for this finals series.
Naitanui’s leap challenged Bombers ruckman Tom Bellchambers from the opening bounce.
At times, he was able to knock it straight into the arms of Andrew Gaff and Luke Shuey, while they were on the move, as though he hadn’t missed a game. Remember, he’s had two knee reconstructions as well.
He was the Eagle putting the most pressure on the Bombers in the midfield with some big tackles.
His highlight came late in the second term, just as Essendon started to stem the flow of Eagles goals, when he chased down Saad as the Essendon speedster bounced his way through the middle of Optus Stadium.
His lowlight came early in the second half when he reacted to Zach Merrett pulling his hair by shoving him into the boundary fence.
How low? We’ll find out when the match is reviewed. The good news for the Eagles is that Merrett kept playing.
With scores tied at 13 points each midway through the opening term, it looked as though Essendon had the start they needed.
But they had to work hard for their two goals that came from opportunities to Andrew McGrath and Will Snelling.
Even when the Bombers got a run on midway through the game, it was two goals from half-back from Saad and another from Snelling, again, that provided the spark.
It was a tough night for Essendon’s regular goal kickers Jake Stringer and Shaun McKernan and it highlighted the importance of them having another tall option forward, whether that be Joe Daniher or someone else.
The Eagles don’t have that issue. As the siren sounded to end the first quarter, Kennedy kicked his second goal for the term.
The Eagles were 21 points up and the Bombers were lucky that was all it was.
The reigning premiers went forward 20 times for the term to the Bombers’ 10.
Kennedy kicked his third just 15 seconds into the second term and by half-time, Liam Ryan, Jake Waterman, Cripps, Jack Darling and Willie Rioli had all hit the scoreboard.
With those players in form, and allowing them 67 inside 50 entries and 31 shots on goal, any team would struggle to beat West Coast.
It was Essendon’s fifth consecutive exit from the finals via an elimination final defeat and the fourth by a big margin.
It was also their sixth straight loss post home-and-away season since their 2004 elimination final victory over Melbourne.
The result puts more pressure on Essendon coach John Worsfold, with some believing he needed to win this week to earn the chance to coach the Bombers to their next September victory.
Kevin Sheedy was in charge in 2004, and the spotlight that has been on Worsfold recently will hang around for another week at least.
The reigning premiers West Coast seem to have shrugged off the disappointment of not finishing in the top four, after late season losses to Richmond and Hawthorn.
Thursday night’s win could set up a grand final rematch against Collingwood in the semi-final at the MCG next Friday night, with the Eagles set to play the loser of the Geelong v Magpies qualifying final.
6.4 10.8 13.11 17.14 (116)
3.1 6.2 8.5 9.7 (61)
GOALS – West Coast: Cripps 4, Kennedy 4, Ryan 3, Darling 2, Waterman 2, Sheed, Rioli.
Essendon: McDonald-Tipungwuti 2, Saad 2, Snelling 2, McGrath, Laverde, Fantasia.
BEST – West Coast: Shuey, Naitanui, Gaff, Cripps, Redden, Sheppard.
Essendon: Heppell, Shiel, Saad, McGrath, Merrett, Redman.
INJURIES – West Coast: Nelson (head knock)
Essendon: Brown (calf)
REPORTS: Zach Merrett reported for misconduct on Nic Naitanui, Nic Naitanui reported for rough conduct on Zach Merrett.
UMPIRES: Stevic, Stephens, Fisher.
CROWD: 59,216 at Optus Stadium.