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Match report: Dons victory earns finals berth

Callum Twomey  August 27, 2017 5:15 PM

Highlights: Essendon v Fremantle The Bombers and Dockers clash in round 23
AFL 2017 Round 23 - Essendon v Fremantle

Essendon's James Kelly punches the ball away from Nat Fyfe

ESSENDON is back in the finals after sealing its top-eight position with a 15-point win over Fremantle on Sunday, but it wasn't without a scare.

The Bombers locked themselves into an elimination final with the victory, which will see them return to September for the first time since 2014 as they aim to break a 13-year drought without a finals win.

Full match coverage and stats

They weren't at their best in the 16.11 (107) to 14.8 (92) win over the Dockers, but were able grind out their 12th victory of the home and away season and become the first side since West Coast in 2011 to follow a wooden-spoon season with a finals appearance.

Zach Merrett starred with a career-high haul of four goals from 31 disposals in a best-afield display, while retiring great Jobe Watson was also important at the coalface with 26 disposals and a team-high eight clearances.

WATCH: Merrett marshals the finals pursuit

It wasn't all smooth sailing for the Bombers, however, with Fremantle getting within eight points of their Etihad Stadium hosts midway through the final term. That boilover could have had significant finals repercussions. However, Essendon steadied to get the job done.

Five talking points: Essendon v Fremantle

The team facing the Bombers in their knockout final will fear what the speedy and attacking Dons can produce at their best, but they weren't quite at that level against the Dockers, particularly without key posts Michael Hurley (calf) and Cale Hooker (calf), with Hooker pulling out after experiencing tightness in the warm-up.

It was a grinding win rather than a statement performance by John Worsfold's side, although they were up against a more competitive Fremantle outfit than the one beaten by 104 points in the past two rounds.

James Stewart starred in attack with a four-goal haul, Brendon Goddard patrolled the back half and gathered 32 touches, and in-form midfield pair David Zaharakis (25 disposals) and Dyson Heppell (30) continued their stellar seasons with strong outings.

Worsfold said the Bombers would hit September in good touch.

"I'm really rapt that everyone who has come into the side has played their role and we've covered some key players out," he said.

"Now we've got a couple of weeks to prepare for our next game and that's going to be critical that we do that well."

Skipper Nat Fyfe was Fremantle's best with 24 disposals and two goals, while David Mundy, Lachie Neale and Luke Ryan were also good. Jonathon Griffin battled hard in the ruck and kicked two goals to accompany his 32 hit-outs, while Brennan Cox (two goals) also showed some good signs as a forward.

"We ran out strong, we attacked the game, there's some really good lessons going forward. Our backs ran, our forwards presented, and some of our young players grew and our leaders stood up," Freo coach Ross Lyon said post-match. 

"That was today, so it was really pleasing, and it gives us a message around where you need to be on the edge of the eight."

Essendon got off to a flyer, kicking the first three goals in quick time and looking set to storm to a strong early lead. But unlike the past two weeks, Fremantle showed some fight and bit back, kicking three of the next four goals to only trail by eight points at the first change.

Missing Hooker and injured small pair Orazio Fantasia (hamstring) and Josh Green (foot), the Bombers were forced to restructure their forward set up, with Stewart playing a more prominent role.

Merrett started to dominate proceedings in the second term, kicking two goals from 12 disposals for the quarter. The 21-year-old is Essendon's best and most damaging midfielder, and will hit the finals in great form after controlling the contest against Freo.

But even despite Merrett's 20-disposal first half and the Bombers registering 35 inside 50s to 19, they couldn't quite shake the Dockers, who trailed by only 20 points at the main break. They might not have had the same forward fluency as the Bombers, but Lyon's men scrounged goals when it looked like they were about to be blown away.

Fremantle again posed some questions of the Bombers in the third term and got within eight points at the halfway mark of the quarter, but Essendon responded brilliantly, booting the next five goals and establishing a 32-point buffer at the final change.

They appeared set to cruise home, but nothing can be taken for granted with this Essendon side, particularly given late fadeouts earlier in the season against Sydney and the Brisbane Lions. The Dockers' five-goal final quarter made for a nervous Essendon crowd, but they prevailed to extend their season and are finals-bound.   

MEDICAL ROOM
Essendon:
The Bombers were thrown a curveball before the game when Hooker was a very, very late withdrawal with calf tightness in the warm-up. They appeared to get through unscathed after that although David Myers did have some treatment on his shoulder at three-quarter time.

Fremantle: The Dockers didn't seem to have any major injury concerns.

ESSENDON     4.3       8.5       14.8     16.11 (107)
FREMANTLE    3.1       5.3       9.6       14.8 (92)

GOALS
Essendon: Merrett 4, Stewart 4, Daniher 2, Hocking 2, McDonald-Tipungwuti, Bellchambers, Begley, Laverde
Fremantle: Griffin 2, Fyfe 2, Sheridan 2, Taberner 2, Ballantyne 2, Cox 2, Bennell, Crozier

BEST
Essendon: Merrett, Goddard, Watson, Zaharakis, Heppell, Stewart
Fremantle: Fyfe, Mundy, Neale, Ryan, Griffin

INJURIES
Essendon: Hooker (calf, replaced by Hocking)
Fremantle: Nil

Reports: Nil

Umpires: Kamolins, Ryan, Mollison 

Official crowd: 42,665 at Etihad Stadium