Essendon are into their first AFL pre-season grand final for 11 years, brushing aside St Kilda by 39 points at Etihad Stadium.
Capping a dirty Friday night for the Saints, key defender Sam Fisher suffered a facial injury as the Bombers continued their impressive start under new coach James Hird, winning 0.12.12 (84) to 0.6.9 (45).
Essendon kicked the opening goal of the game less than a minute after the first bounce and Fisher was hurt in an accidental collision shortly after, setting the tone for the night.
Fisher could have a facial fracture, but at quarter-time coach Ross Lyon said the early signs were the injury was not serious.
The resurgent Bombers will now play the winner of Saturday’s semi-final between West Coast and Collingwood next Friday night at Etihad Stadium.
The last time Essendon made the pre-season decider, they beat North Melbourne in a fiery match and went on to dominate the 2000 season.
They are light years away from being that proficient but the Hird regime is definitely showing good early signs.
For the Saints, they will now face a challenge match at Coffs Harbour against Sydney on Saturday week.
The Bombers were far more desperate and used the ball much better, leading by 44 points at three-quarter time.
It was again noticeable they have improved their defensive play, a big problem for the Bombers last year when they finished 14th.
Hird has made Essendon’s defence a major focus of this pre-season.
But just as St Kilda easily beat an undermanned Geelong last week, it was difficult to gauge Essendon on Friday night because the Saints were clearly well off their best.
St Kilda started the off-season much later than Essendon after the grand final replay and are not as far advanced as the Bombers.
Still, several young Bombers stood out, particularly small forward Leroy Jetta, ruckman Tom Bellchambers and rookie-listed forward Stewart Crameri, who is pushing hard for a round-one elevation to the senior list.
A year ago, West Coast ruckman Nick Naitanui taught Bellchambers a rucking lesson in a NAB Cup match.
But Bellchambers, like Jetta, has definitely enjoyed a productive pre-season and the young ruckman also took a great overhead mark in the third term.
Defender Courtenay Dempsey was best afield with 17 possessions.
By contrast, it is now five matches since the Saints beat Essendon, including their round-one draw last month.
The Bombers suffered a blow in the last term when Henry Slattery broke his thumb, putting him out of action for four to five weeks.
While Bellchambers dominated, the Saints were left without a frontline ruckman when they decided to rest Ben McEvoy from the game.
Saints Ross Lyon was unimpressed with some aspects of the loss, noting “we should be starting to get going”, but was far from devastated.
There was also some promising news on Fisher, with the Saints hopeful he will not be out of action for long.
“I did speak to the doctor and they (sic) said it will be a week, ‘max’ – so whatever that means, I need to get full assessment,” Lyon said.
He made a point of praising the Bombers, even going so far as to calling their game a top-four performance, while saying the Saints were more competitive after halftime.
“Essendon were terrific, they played like a hungry team, they’ve really coordinated and harnessed their talent,” he said.
“I just think they’re going to go a long way …. it was like a top-four performance, wasn’t it?
“We really had some strong wakeup calls … it just highlights at this level, how quickly you can get exposed.
“I’m not happy about it, but I’m sure we can turn it around.”
Hird was more circumspect about his team’s win, saying the main significance of making the final was the encouragement it would give to Bombers supporters.
“We know we’re a long way off where a lot of those other top sides are,” Hird said.
“But if we continue to put pressure on the ball and tackles in that forward line, we can be a chance in most games we play.”