FREMANTLE'S recalibration under first-year coach Trent Cooper has paid immediate dividends, with the Dockers claiming a maiden NAB AFL Women's finals berth after a runaway 27-point victory over North Melbourne in a do-or-die clash on Saturday.
The Dockers secured second spot on the hotly contested Conference A ladder with the 7.10 (52) to 4.1 (25) triumph at Fremantle Oval, in the process eliminating a fierce flag rival.
However, they could be sweating on the fitness of star midfielder Dana Hooker and emerging forward Sabreena Duffy after both were helped from the field in the second half.
Duffy went down nursing an apparent left leg injury just before three-quarter time, while Hooker was hurt in a fourth-term collision and had ice on her quad post-game.
The injury concerns threatened to take some gloss off Fremantle's win, although the club is confident both will be fit next weekend.
Cooper's charges celebrated raucously at the final siren, and will now look ahead to a preliminary final showdown on the road against Carlton or Brisbane.
RACE FOR FINALS Where is your team placed?
It was a shattering end to a brilliant debut campaign by expansion club North Melbourne, which won five games and was a raging premiership favourite early in the season.
The Kangaroos missed out on finals amid serious questions about the fairness of the conference system, especially considering Fremantle (6-1) has to travel in finals to face a side which has won fewer games.
North Melbourne, which entered the match in second spot, threw everything at the Dockers but wasn't as efficient in attack.
The Roos led inside 50s (17-16) at half-time but trailed by 19 points and despite mounting a challenge in the third quarter still went to the final change down by 15.
Goals either side of the break from Ashley Sharp took the wind out of North's sails, and it was party time for Freo after Ashlee Atkins converted.
Duffy starred in the opening half, drilling two crucial goals, and midfield dynamo Kiara Bowers was again Fremantle's best player after racking up 22 touches and 13 tackles, keeping her in the MVP race.
Ebony Antonio (11 disposals) was rock solid after being sent back to defence, and Hooker (15) never stopped running before her injury.
Reigning AFLW best and fairest Emma Kearney (24 disposals, nine clearances, one goal) led from the front for her team, with excellent support from Jenna Bruton (27, eight clearances) and Jessica Duffin (22).
Giant ruck Emma King commanded the hitouts as North's engine room gave as good as it got, but Fremantle was too potent and remained undefeated at home on the way to a first finals campaign.
Did you see that?
There was never any doubt about the commitment of both sides on Saturday, but a second-quarter collision between Fremantle dynamo Kiara Bowers and North Melbourne gun Jessica Duffin was fearless to the point of reckless. As Freo exited defence, Bowers surged forward and called for the ball near the wing. The kick was about 10m in front of the pocket rocket, who charged after it and never took her eyes off the ball. Duffin did likewise, and both players smashed into each other in the air as the crowd held their collective breath. Bowers landed on her feet and, fortunately, Duffin was also OK after taking some time to steady herself following a heavy landing.
With club champion Ebony Antonio sent back into defence to cover for Alex Williams (ACL), the Dockers needed their smalls to get to work in attack and rising star Sabreena Duffy answered the call. The first-year goalsneak handed Fremantle all the momentum entering quarter-time after soccering through from the line, before taking responsibility from 25m out in the second stanza when she had a teammate over the top and drilling her second. The Roos had plenty of opportunities and kept pounding the ball inside 50, but didn't have anyone as dangerous as Duffy. It was a worrying blow in the third term when she went down with an apparent left ankle injury.
The Roos mounted a challenge in the third term and it was none other than reigning League best and fairest and skipper Emma Kearney who delivered a team-lifter. Kearney had been superb through midfield all game, helping to keep North Melbourne right in the engine room contest despite trailing on the scoreboard. When the visitors needed a goal, she got forward to a stoppage in the right forward pocket, picked up a loose ball and threw it on the boot, slotting one of the goals of the season and reducing the margin to just eight points.
The ladder now
The Dockers held their nerve to finish second on the ladder in Conference A, overtaking the Roos in a thrilling climax to their seasons. There has already been plenty of criticism of the uneven conferences and that will no doubt continue after North won five games and missed out on a preliminary final spot, while Fremantle will have to travel to almost certainly face either Carlton or Brisbane, who have both won fewer games but one of which will finish on top of the weaker conference.
"The girls thoroughly deserve to be playing finals footy. We had a big task today against a really good side and we probably played as well as we have all year. A really good feeling amongst the group now. Since Darwin every game for us has been a final. We've played under that pressure for three weeks now. I think it puts us in good stead for the finals." - Fremantle coach Trent Cooper
"I think we just understand each other as people and as players as well. Trent's been really good at that, bringing us close together. We're just a happy group, we love playing footy." - Fremantle forward Kellie Gibson
"To be honest with you, we spoke about it right from the start and we knew exactly what the conference system was and what we had to do. At the end of the day we lost to Fremantle and Adelaide by a little bit both times and I think that's a true reflection of probably where we're at. It was pretty simple today, we had to win to make it and we didn't." - North Melbourne coach Scott Gowans
"We're not better than Fremantle and Adelaide and they're playing finals, so it (conference system) doesn't really bother us. At the end of the day, the two best teams will play in the Grand Final and that's what the competition needs. " - North Melbourne captain Emma Kearney
The Dockers will find out who they travel to face in a preliminary final after Carlton faces the Bulldogs and Brisbane takes on winless Collingwood, while the Roos will lick their wounds and head for reviews after an excellent debut season.
FREMANTLE 2.1 4.2 5.4 7.10 (52)
NORTH MELBOURNE 0.0 1.1 3.1 4.1 (25)
Fremantle: Duffy 2, Sharp 2, Houghton, Gibson, Atkins
North Melbourne: Hope 2, Ashmore, Kearney
Fremantle: Bowers, Antonio, Miller, Duffy, Hooker, Atkins
North Melbourne: Kearney, Bruton, King, Ashmore, Hope
Fremantle: Duffy (ankle), Hooker (quad)
North Melbourne: Nil
Umpires: Heffernan, Johanson, Balles
Official crowd: 6386 at Fremantle Oval