THE WESTERN Bulldogs were made to hold their nerve.
In the knowledge that an all-important victory would earn the Dogs the final spot in the AFL's top-eight on Sunday night, a 30-point win over Fremantle wasn't exactly the type of stress-free evening Luke Beveridge would have hoped for.
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Moments of nervousness and frustration punctuated the side's 11.8 (74) to 6.8 (44) win at Cazaly's Stadium, but a late final-quarter surge ensured the reward of finals football was eventually clasped with both hands.
Victory and a place in the top-eight for the Western Bulldogs came at the expense of a crestfallen Melbourne, who watched its season come to a shuddering halt from its team hotel in Maroochydore.
Instead, it will be the Dogs who will eagerly await the identity of its elimination final opponent on Monday night and look ahead to the tantalising possibilities that come with finals footy.
The Bulldogs have been in this position before, ready to launch an unlikely premiership run from the bottom half of the top-eight. And, indeed, it was the club's flag heroes who led their charge in Cairns.
Tom Liberatore (25 disposals, eight tackles) willed himself to every contest in a performance that encapsulated his class and toughness, while Lachie Hunter (34 disposals, one goal) was prolific all night.
To its credit, a Fremantle side with little to play for but pride stuck around till the end. The brilliance of Nat Fyfe (23 disposals, two goals) helped the Dockers shave the deficit to just six points in the third term, but an upset always looked a step too far.
In the end, Fremantle couldn't do Melbourne an almighty favour, as the Western Bulldogs kicked clear with the game's final four goals to earn a second successive finals appearance.
A win for the Dogs is a loss for the Dees
Melbourne fans must not like tuning into Sunday evening games to end the season. Just as it was back in 2017, the Demons fall just shy of a finals berth as a result of a nervous Sunday night match. It was West Coast that took their spot back then, and it's the Western Bulldogs in 2020. The Dogs' victory means they will play finals footy this year and will play either St Kilda (if Port Adelaide wins on Monday night) or West Coast (if Collingwood wins on Monday night) in an elimination final in a fortnight's time. As for Melbourne, who watched the match from its team hotel in Maroochydore, it's the frustration of ninth again.
Dogs sweat on Naughton, Wallis
Aaron Naughton has often been the Western Bulldogs' focal point in attack, but his night was ended prior to half-time on Sunday evening after a head clash with ruckman Sean Darcy while on the receiving end of a hefty bump. Making the situation all the more worrying, the team's medical staff also looked concerned by an apparent shoulder injury sustained by Mitch Wallis in the dying stages of his 150th game. In their absence, Josh Bruce took a number of strong marks playing higher up the ground, while defender Alex Keath shifted forward in the second half to give the side another option inside 50. Naughton headed to hospital at the main break for precautionary scans, having appeared to hold his cheekbone as he left the field, while Wallis will almost certainly do likewise this week. The Bulldogs will now wait nervously for the results ahead of their do-or-die final in a fortnight.
Jesse's journey nearly comes full circle
There was a time when Jesse Hogan would have dreamt of leading Melbourne into the finals. Just not like this. In the knowledge that a Fremantle victory on Sunday night would keep his old side in the top-eight, Hogan continued a promising end to the season. After an impressive four-goal haul against North Melbourne in his last match, the imposing forward became the No.1 target in attack when Matt Taberner withdrew on the eve of the clash with a quad injury. He led hard and competed well in the air, capping his night with a nice mark and goal in the third term. That complemented a performance that featured 13 disposals and six grabs. However, unfortunately for the Dees, it wasn't enough for an upset.
FREMANTLE 2.2 5.4 6.5 6.8 (44)
WESTERN BULLDOGS 2.3 7.4 8.8 11.8 (74)
Fremantle: Fyfe 2, Darcy, Schulz, Crowden, Hogan
Western Bulldogs: English 2, Wallis, Johannisen, Naughton, Bruce, Lipinski, B.Smith, Hunter, Daniel, Bontempelli
Fremantle: Fyfe, Serong, Ryan, Darcy, Cerra, Hogan
Western Bulldogs: Liberatore, Hunter, Bontempelli, English, Lipinski, Daniel
Fremantle: Taberner (quad) replaced in selected side by Colyer
Western Bulldogs: Naughton (head), Wallis (shoulder)