Round 8 – Hawthorn v West Coast: Mothers’ Day






With the intervention of the Covid winter of 2020, I had only been at the MCG twice since that magical ‘Fathers’ Day’ Grand Final in 2018 (see The Eagles Almanac 2018 for my explanation of that one). Once, on the day in 2019 when Nic Naitanui came back from his 11 month layoff after injuring his knee (also at the ‘G against the Pies early in 2018) and then for a Round 22 loss that year to Richmond in a cracking contest which the Eagles almost snatched in the dying stages.



So the Eagles had come to the MCG this Mothers’ Day in 2021 and I was back for a third time. It was a sunny and balmy 21 degrees when the game started, the sort of day that reminded me of the Perth Autumn days when our family would gather to express our profound gratitude to Mum. My Mum passed away a few years ago after a lifetime of working to make the lives of others easier, and then, in the years when she should have been sitting back and enjoying life as a grandmother, she had been forced confront the onset of Alzheimers which ultimately took her. So the reminder of those Perth days was bittersweet as I wandered through the dappled light in Yarra Park for the early Sunday game.



The game was against Hawthorn. Some teams seem to have a significance as opponents beyond the measure of being one of 17 others and, for the Eagles, the Hawks are surely one of those. They had come to Perth and knocked the Eagles out of a top four spot -and any chance of a grand final – in the last game in 2019. They had beaten the Eagles at the MCG in every contest between the two sides until that Nic Nat come-back game in 2019 (a history I recounted in The home of football and the burden of history; West Coast v Hawthorn in the Almanac back then). They demolished the Eagles in the grand final in 2015 marking the start of three long years to get back to the last Saturday. And they were also triumphant in the Eagles’ first time in a Grand Final, in 1991 at Waverley Park, (a place that then – to a visitor from Perth – seemed to be somewhere closer to New Zealand than to Melbourne). I remember as I trudged up the Waverley steps to leave that day, some drunken young men thought it appropriate to remind those in blue and gold of the long, sad trip home they faced.



It was that ’91 Grand Final in which the AFL, for reasons best known to itself, unveiled the stupid ‘batmobile’ as part of the pre match and half time entertainment, and to me it came to represent all that was wrong about that day. The last time I had seen the  batmobile was outside the MCG before the 2015 grand final when it had been part of the Festival of Football, and a grim omen of what was to come that afternoon.



And it had remained a bad memory until Hawthorn wheeled it out again this week to promote the premiership reunions for their 1961, 1971 and 1991 teams, and there it was before the game at the MCG this Mothers’ Day.


The AFL’s batmobile in 1991 (L) and in more recent times [Source: Author]


Not that I needed any more bad signs for this game. The Eagles had been devastated by injuries this season, with three more added in the week before the game. And not just anyone. Unavailable for selection were the MCG specialist and captain, Luke Shuey, 2017 and 2018 club champion Elliot Yeo, the three members of that remarkable passage of play in the 2018 Grand Final that led to Dom Sheed’s mark and goal – Jeremy McGovern, Nathan Vardy and Liam Ryan; former captain and inspiration, Shannon Hurn; premiership players Liam Duggan and Mark Hutchings, and then, during the week leading up to the game, Tom Barrass with a shoulder that hadn’t recovered in time. On the basis of looking for some good to come from this carnage, I reflected that perhaps Tom’s place on this Mothers’ Day was probably with his Mum back in Perth as it had been only a few weeks since the tragic passing (aged just 58) of her partner and Tom’s Dad and inspiration, respected journalist Martin Barrass, who, in 1989 had been the first journalist to have been sent to jail in Australia for upholding the journalist’s solemn ethos of never revealing a source. It would undoubtedly have been a tough first Mothers’ Day without him, and so best that her family were all there with her in Perth.



With all of these injuries to top players, I wondered where the breaking point might be. The Hawks hadn’t been setting the world on fire this season, but the Eagles team without its leaders and most of its stars had been abysmal on the road, squandering a four goal lead to St Kilda and then not firing a shot for three quarters against Geelong at Kardinia Park, rightly earning the Coach’s frustrated judgment as ‘weak’, before rediscovering an encouraging attack on the ball to win the Western Derby against the Dockers.



But the team had travelled to Victoria with three players (Ah Chee, Williams and Foley) set to play their first games for 2021, a day after the Eagle seconds in the WAFL had to call upon more than half a team of fill-ins to put a side on the park. Being back on the road, no matter who the opponent was, this was going to be a test of character and commitment for the young Eagles, led onto the MCG, for one of the few times in his storied career, by club legend Josh Kennedy.



It has to be said that not all of their champions were absent. Kennedy I mentioned. Gaff, Sheed and Redden were still there in the midfield. Jack Darling was leading the attack. Oscar Allen had a Rising Star gong. Brad Sheppard was leading the defence.  And Tim Kelly had won the Glendinning medal with a memorable display in the derby.



And they still had Nicholas Mark Naitanui in the ruck.



Nic had, like me, only been back at the MCG twice since the 2018 Grand Final. On that day of course Naitanui had been on the bench helping call midfield strategy and had stood with Gaff (suspended) and Sheppard (injured) watching his team-mates receive their premiership medals. He had then made his come-back against the Hawks at the MCG that day in 2019, but an ankle injury a couple of weeks later kept him out until the first Semi Final at the ‘G, in which the Eagles went down to Geelong by 20 points.



In 2020 of course, the Eagles didn’t play at the MCG or in locked down Victoria at all. The games were all in Queensland or Perth, with the Eagles losing the Elimination Final in Perth by a point. But the club champion in that difficult hub-living season was N. Naitanui. Strangely enough (or perhaps not) second was Andrew Gaff and third was Brad Sheppard. You might have thought that the trio had something more than their team mates to pursue, or to prove. Naitanui and Sheppard (with Liam Ryan) were 2020 All Australians.



It isn’t well known but while his team-mates were celebrating the premiership in October 2018, Naitanui travelled to Israel and Palestine, where he visited Beersheba where the Australian light horsemen rode their fabled charge in 1917, walked the path of the crucifixion and the tomb of the resurrection and took training with the Tel Aviv Cheetahs. He said that the trip was inspired by a trip there made by his Mum and family a few years earlier.



Up to this Round 8 clash in 2021, Naitanui was leading the Eagles’ clearance stats with 50, ahead of Sheed on 45. He was second for contested possessions with 77 behind Kelly with 88. He was third for tackles. So whilst there were many out, he was still there, and you got the feeling that he might be more important to the Eagles’ chances of being competitive, not just in this game, but in every game, than any member of the absent cohort.



So on this sunny Mothers’ Day, Nic Nat ran out with the Eagles, with their fate considerably in (as Paul Kelly once sang of another MCG star) ‘the palm of his hands.’



In another sense, that was fateful and fitting because Nic had recently opened up, paying glowing tributes to his late Mum, Ateca, who had passed away suddenly a month before the 2015 finals.



In the Ordeneroli podcast before the season, he told Neroli Meadows that he had almost given football away after the 2015 grand final; ‘The biggest thing in my life was to impress my mum and to help her live a better life because she sacrificed so much. My biggest goal and biggest drive was to give her and the rest of my family a better life and I had to find new reasons and avenues to motivate myself. I weighed up whether it was worth playing footy anymore and whether it was worth doing what I do. What’s the point of doing it if I haven’t got my mum there.’



Naitanui similarly told Mark Howard in the Howie Games Podcast recently; ‘Everyone has their reason why they play footy, and for me most of my reasoning why was for my mum. Whether it was to make her not have to work three jobs anymore and get her a house, or help support her or make her proud. They were my biggest drivers and I guess to not have her around anymore I thought, “what’s the point?”.’



Ateca had lost her partner Bola when Nic was two years old and she moved to Perth from Fiji to give Nic, and his twin brother Mark, a better life. For 20 years she worked with the homeless and underprivileged and Nic explained to Mark Howard that she brought her work home with her, as their Midvale home always had extra kids staying there, especially at Christmas. She didn’t earn much, but half of everything Ateca did earn was sent back to help family in Fiji. This meant that one of the best ruckmen to ever play the game, encouraged to play by his neighbours Michael ‘Sonny’ Walters (Dockers) and Chris Yarran (Carlton), started out playing without boots, wearing ‘a pair of Dunlop Volleys from Target’. Nic confessed to Howard his guilt at being upset at missing out on things others took for granted; ‘I didn’t really think about how hard it was to be a single mother looking after growing boys and giving money back home and working three jobs.’



After being persuaded to continue playing by one of his Uncles, Nic continued his mother’s kindness by sending half of his own income back to the family in Fiji. He also adopted her charitable attitude by involving himself in a number of causes including confronting issues around challenges to mental health and he established the Naitanui Academy to inspire Indigenous players to play the game and pursue their schooling.  Continuing to be confronted by racism on social media, Nic decided to try and help change attitudes at a young age by writing a children’s book called Little Nic’s Big Day to ’embrace our differences and celebrate our diversity.’ He dedicated it to ‘my dearest mother Ateca Naitanui. Thank you for the lessons in life and the memories now that you’re resting above. But most of all thank you for your nurturing and unconditional love.’



After his Mum’s death in 2015, Nic told The West Australian that he was inspired by her spirit and joy in life; ‘Just that spirit, I always think back to the joy she had. I watched my first game back again and the smile on the face and how proud she was.’



I think that just how good Naitanui is, and the way he has changed and raised the standard of the art of rucking in AFL footy, is often under-appreciated and gets lost in the other noise that now surrounds the game. He has now fought back from two knee reconstructions and the pain of significant personal loss.  But West Coast fans know who he is, what he brings and what he does. And while he is there and without a premiership medal of his own, it would be unwise to write off the Eagles in any game he is playing. Especially on Mother’s Day.



Only about 16,000 people were there at the MCG in the sunshine so social distancing was not an issue. The stupid batmobile came and went. Half way through the third quarter, for some reason, the lights came on. Nic Nat had 28 hit outs, 14 to advantage against a worthy adversary in Ben McEvoy. He had seven clearances and 12 disposals. Gaff had 25. Sheppard 18. Nic Nat’s influence on the game whenever he was near the ball was palpable. The young Eagles followed his lead. Brendon Ah Chee’s return to the side netted four goals. The Eagles won their first game on the road for 2021, by 38 points. Adam Simpson said it was the way they played, not the win that was important.



Simpson thought that McGovern, Barrass, Liam Ryan, Mark Hutchings and Shannon Hurn might be back for the next game, but somehow that didn’t seem as important as it had before, as long as the big fella was in the middle doing his thing and sending Kelly and Sheed on their way, or grabbing it himself and banging long kicks into the forward line.



I watched the Eagles coming off. Nic Nat seemed thoughtful and not exuberant. Satisfied though not accomplished.



My Dad and I exchanged some emails this week about the poetry of Australian horseman and bush poet Adam Lindsay Gordon. His statue stands near Parliament House in Spring Street. As I reflected on the life of Ateca Naitanui and the many legacies she left her son, as I watched Nic come out of the bright light into the shade at the edge of the MCG, I called to mind some of Gordon’s most famous lines and thought how fitting a tribute they were to the both of them, on this Mothers’ Day far from home:



‘Question not, but live and labour

Till yon goal be won,

Helping every feeble neighbour,

Seeking help from none.


Life is mostly froth and bubble

Two things stand like stone;

Kindness in another’s trouble,

Courage in your own.’



Naitanui had obviously learnt much from his Mum. No doubt we all do but we probably just don’t recognize it enough while we still can. One day each year doesn’t seem enough to repay the debt.



Without the usual thronging crowds on the concourse outside the ‘G, it was easy to watch and hear people as they left the ground. You could spot the mums with their families. Normally when one of the local teams loses by six goals to the Eagles, there is a certain level of rancour and bitterness in the air – about the umpires, the players, the coach, the AFL – but I detected little of that this day. On the contrary, most of the mums and grandmas seemed content to be out for the day with their families in the glorious Autumn sunshine. One family in front of me was laughing about the batmobile.



And for the first time in 30 years, I did too.



Nic, Ateca and Mark Naitanui [Source: Author]




The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in 2021. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order HERE



To return to our Footy Almanac home page click HERE.




Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.



Do you enjoy the Almanac concept?

And want to ensure it continues in its current form, and better? To help things keep ticking over please consider making your own contribution.



Become an Almanac (annual) member – CLICK HERE.


One-off financial contribution – CLICK HERE.


Regular financial contribution (monthly EFT) – CLICK HERE.




  1. Rulebook says

    Thanks John a great powerful emotional read

  2. Wonderful piece. Thanks John.
    There is certainly a spirit to the Eagles under Adam Simpson. They are giving everything despite age and injury. All any fan can ask for.
    I’ve had the Paul Kelly and Dan Sultan song “Everyday I hear my mother’s voice” on repeat all week. A song PK wrote about Adam Goodes.
    “Every day the sun comes up
    Like the day before
    Every day I fill my cup
    Stand up straight and walk through the door

    Every day my mother’s voice
    Talks to me
    Every day I make my choice
    What to do and how to be”

    Truly inspirational words and ringing guitar melody set my shoulders straight and head up to meet each day.

    On a negative note – you were lucky to be at the game and not watching on TV. I expect little of commentators but that twerp Dermott Brereton repeatedly criticised Naitanui for not covering more ground and getting to more contests. Nic has never been an endurance athlete – so it’s a binary choice – he runs between the arcs and has 80% game time – or he goes back and forward as McEvoy and Grundy do (and plays 50%). His efforts to stay out there so long and block marking avenues has amazed me. His tap work was once again brilliant and McEvoy mostly won taps when rucking against Darling, Allen or Williams. Nic is the heart and soul of this Eagles team.

  3. John Butler says

    That’s a terrific piece, John.

  4. John Gordon says

    Thanks for the kind remarks Almanackers. That’s a great song and film clip Peter B and right on point. As for Nic around the ground, in 2020 he took 13 marks in 17 games – and was still the All Australian number 1 ruckman. For a very good reason. And when we have our best side in, the marking down back is up to McGovern, Barrass and Hurn. Up forward JK, Darling and Oscar. Why compete with any of them? I’ll take what he gives us at stoppages. More than enough.

Leave a Comment