Reigning premiership coach Adam Simpson says travelling to Melbourne holds no fears for West Coast, particularly with ruckman Nic Naitanui back in the team.
The Eagles will head to a MCG clash with either Geelong or Collingwood next week after slicing and dicing Essendon in Perth on Thursday night to win the first elimination final by 55 points.
“He is probably one of our most influential players,” Simpson told Channel Seven when asked about the ruckman who only returned from a long-term knee injury in Round 17.
We’ve only had him four times this year. We’re a different side when he plays. That is just reality.’’
Naitanui showed no signs of his recent ankle injury to be a driving force in the centre and around the ground, but a third-quarter spat with Bomber Zach Merrett could cast a pall over his week.
Merrett appeared to pull Naitanui’s trademark dreadlocks, prompting an angry response from the big Eagle who had amassed nine possessions and 11 hitouts in the first half.
Naitanui threw Merrett into a boundary fence and grabbed him near the throat. Both were reported.
Naitanui told Channel Seven he “wasn’t happy” with the hair pulling and “I’ll probably get a fine for that”.
Naitanui went on to finish with 24 hitouts and 14 disposals, including several crunching tackles on speedy players.
Shock losers to Hawthorn in the final round of the home-and-away season, West Coast’s dumping from the top four means it now needs to travel every week to win the flag, but Simpson said he was proud of the way the players rebounded.
“The way that they responded after a disappointing few days after the Hawthorn game and reflection, I thought that we got onto it pretty well,” he said.
“It was pretty professional response, I thought.”
Simpson said the MCG holds no fears after last year’s grand final win.
“Not really,” he said. “We’re not too fussed about travelling so on to the G next week …
“We are alive … That doesn’t hold any real fears for us. But we understand it is a pretty big mountain to climb. Yeah, happy with tonight, but probably not satisfied yet.”
The Eagles dominated an under-pressure Essendon from midway through the first quarter.
Eagle forward Josh Kennedy booted four goals, with three in the first half, also setting up livewire Liam Ryan for another two.
Lewis Jetta’s pinpoint kicks from defence saw Ryan and Willie Rioli cut a swathe through the Bombers defence.
Kennedy booted his second goal on the quarter-time siren to give West Coast a handy 21-point lead at the first break, and the margin swelled to 41 points midway through the second quarter.
West Coast was then able to withstand two Essendon fightbacks to secure the 17.14 (116) to 9.7 (61) win in front of 59,216 fans.
For Essendon it was another non-event finals series, with the club having not won a finals match since 2004.
Essendon forward Jake Stringer was goalless.
Coach John Worsfold has one year remaining on his contract and although there has been some talk of discontent he has a contract to remain in charge next season.
Essendon captain Dyson Heppell told Channel Seven the players needed to take responsibility.
“They showed us what it takes to be a very competitive, finals-hungry footy team,” Heppell said.
“They showed us up in all areas tonight.
“We have a hell of a long way to go to get to the top end of the ladder and to be a real, I guess, competitive team come finals time.
“I guess you can look at the year, proud of the group and the development that we have had throughout the year. Far too many inconsistencies. Yeah, no excuses. We just cop that one on the chin.
“We have a young group coming through that will hold us in good stead.
“You need to be accountable on the senior players of this footy club to really demand high standards and setting the bar for those kids to follow and set a culture that is going to last a long time.”