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ESSENDON TAKE DOWN DOCKERS IN AFL

Essendon have completed their transformation from 2016 wooden-spooners to AFL finalists after seeing off Fremantle by 15 points at Etihad Stadium.

Zach Merrett starred as the Bombers locked in a top-eight place with the tougher-than-expected 16.11 (107) to 14.8 (92) win.

On a day designed to fete retiring greats Jobe Watson and James Kelly, the next-gen midfielder stole the show.

The 21-year-old Merrett had 31 touches and kicked a career-high four goals to continue the Bombers' season into September.

'I'm very proud of the footy club led by Dyson (Heppell) and the team. It's a significant achievement to do what they did,' coach John Worsfold said.

Worsfold was boosted in leaping from the bottom rung of the ladder to seventh by the return of 10 players this season after doping bans.

He said those returning players - led by Watson - helped make the club whole again.

'It was never going to be as easy as just getting these guys back in,' he said.

'They've played a significant role in getting the club back together.'

While Fremantle were no pushovers, Essendon's next task - winning their first final since 2004 - is likely to be much tougher.

John Worsfold's side will face off in an elimination final next week, likely to be away to high-flying Sydney.

For the first half, Essendon looked likely but not certain winners.

When Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, James Stewart and Tom Bellchambers kicked goals inside the first five minutes of the game, another hiding for the Dockers looked on the cards.

But Fremantle - who had lost their last two matches by 104 points - steadied and took it up to the Bombers.

Three times the Dockers cut Essendon's lead to just eight points to ensure nervous moments for the partisan crowd.

Merrett kicked two in a five-goal third-term blitz - including one from the centre square - over seven minutes that should have ended the contest.

The Bombers were terrific around the stoppages and played with a greater spread than the Dockers.

But Fremantle roared back with the next five goals of the game.

Late inclusion Heath Hocking, playing just his seventh game in three years, stopped the Bombers' rot with a steadying major and Essendon held on.

Tom Bellchambers was influential for the Dons, as was Dyson Heppell (30 possessions) and Brendon Goddard (32 touches) in defence.

Stewart also kicked four goals for the Bombers.

Key trio David Mundy, Nat Fyfe and Lachie Neale were Fremantle's best, with coach Ross Lyon identifying plenty of positives.

'Psychologically it's a very difficult round (to play) a team that is surging for a finals appearance,' he said.

'Our fight and our willpower was really strong. We were right in the game.

'Our backs ran, Our forwards presented. Some of our young players grew and our leaders stood up.'

While the Dockers showed improved fight on the last day of the season, 10 losses in their last 13 matches places them 14th.



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