CARLTON earned a shot at the NAB AFLW premiership with a runaway 36-point win against Fremantle in the preliminary final at Ikon Park on Saturday.
With Tayla Harris a reliable target up forward, the Blues controlled the contest almost from the opening bounce to post their second highest score with the 9.10 (64) to 4.4 (28) victory.
Nothing went right for Fremantle after it was forced to tackle the Blues without captain Kara Donnellan, a late withdrawal with knee soreness.
It left sidekick Kiara Bowers to confront the Blues' midfield brigade led by Brianna Davey and the overworked Docker was overwhelmed by weight of Navy Blue numbers. Even Docker Dana Hooker, another midfield ace, limped noticeably with heavy strapping on her right thigh.
Harris was unfazed by the midweek media focus and presented a dangerous focal point all game with her strong marking and long kicking prowess.
While the Blues had multiple options to Harris inside the forward 50, the Dockers struggled up forward. A measure of that ineptness was Gabby O'Sullivan's first goal seven minutes into the game ... and they had to wait until O'Sullivan repeated the feat 10 minutes into the third term for the next scoreboard success.
- Brooke Walker of the Blues celebrates after kicking a goal during the AFLW Preliminary Final match between Carlton and Fremantle.
- Gemma Houghton of the Dockers kicks the ball during the AFLW Preliminary Final match between Carlton and Fremantle.
- Darcy Vescio of the Blues celebrates after kicking a goal during the AFLW Preliminary Final match between Carlton and Fremantle.
- Katie Loynes of the Blues attempts to mark the ball during the AFLW Preliminary Final match between Carlton and Fremantle.
- Parris Laurie of the Dockers and Alison Downie of the Blues compete for the ball during the AFLW Preliminary Final between Carlton and Fremantle.
- Katie-Jayne Grieve of the Dockers kicks the ball during the AFLW Preliminary Final match between Carlton and Fremantle.
- Darcy Vescio of the Blues celebrates after kicking a goal during the AFLW Preliminary Final match between Carlton and the Fremantle.
- Ebony Antonio of the Dockers is tackled by Tayla Harris of the Blues during the AFLW Preliminary Final match between Carlton and Fremantle.
- Tayla Bresland of the Dockers is tackled during the AFLW Preliminary Final match between Carlton and Fremantle.
- Kiara Bowers of the Dockers kicks the ball during the AFLW Preliminary Final match between Carlton and Fremantle.
Carlton earned the Grand Final berth with superior ball use and a structure, particularly in the back half, that stood the rest of finals intensity.
Losing Donnellan was a bitter disappointment for the Dockers in the perfect, summer-like conditions tailor-made for the elite onballers.
And, despite O'Sullivan goalling from close range after taking advantage of a free kick to a teammate early in the first quarter, things deteriorated even more for the visitors.
Ashlee Atkins was helped to the interchange bench clutching her right shoulder after a tackle from Davey late in the opening term. And back Evie Gooch jogged off holding the left wrist after being crunched in a marking contest early in the second quarter.
Really, Carlton should have established a sizeable scoreboard buffer much earlier despite conceding the first goal of the game.
The Blues butchered the first three scoring shots before Harris marked and goalled from 35m with that trademark powerful set shot routine, prompting a huge roar from the home crowd.
Carlton dominated the first half with midfield control from Lauren Brazzale and Davey as Docker acting captain Bowers battling hard without her midfield leader.
The Blues split open the contest with their monopoly of the ball in the second term that resulted in a lopsided 14-4 inside-50 count.
Breann Moody, working superbly in the ruck duels, goalled on the run early in the second quarter, followed by Chloe Dalton and Maddy Prespakis who added to the scoreboard pressure.
When Darcy Vescio marked and goalled from close range seconds before the half-time siren, Fremantle was really under the pump to mount a second half revival to try to save its season.
"It was pretty bloody good. I was pleased for the girls because every week we've been better and that takes a bit of trust and belief in our system. And today we took full toll with the plan we had in place and the system. 'We're a crap team that can't play', that's how everyone sees us and whether that has changed after today, I don't know. We know we're a good team and everyone underestimates us and that's fine. I don't think anyone will after today on the back of what we did, but good luck them if they do." - Carlton coach Daniel Harford
"We were completely outplayed. Coming into the game, we thought our pressure was our strong point and Carlton were 10th for tackles, but they got to the ball quicker and were clean. The effort from our girls was there, but we were outplayed and their forwards are so dangerous if they're getting that supply." - Fremantle coach Trent Cooper
Rebel with a cause!
Carlton forward Tayla Harris said the massive media focus from her defiant stance against web trolls was never going to derail or even distract her from the preliminary final preparations.
"The support I received was incredible and it wasn't hard. I was quite strategic with what I put out there and then let it roll along for other people to pick up. There was a lady from another country who's a fly fisher, so that was pretty cool. A lot of people shared their story with me," Harris said.
"I obviously saw it as an opportunity for change and I guess the momentum going into the game. It was an exciting week. I don't think it has sunk in what has happened. In my head, footy came first and there was no point where I felt overwhelmed and I used it as something coming into the game.
"I was just trying to do my job as a big unit, thanks Dad, and hit packs and not get lost."
A coach's busy life
Do I go or do I stay? Carlton coach Daniel Harford wasn't sure in the afterglow of the victory how he would watch the Adelaide-Geelong preliminary final.
Harford said he had to weigh up a commitment to be part of the radio team for the Western Bulldogs-Sydney game at Marvel Stadium on Saturday night and another media engagement on Sunday.
"It's up in the air at the moment. There are a few opportunities, sit there and watch it on the TV, go over and watch it live or go to work and watch it later. Regardless, there's will be someone there at the Adelaide Oval for us," he said.
And he vowed not to change tack in the Grand Final build-up during the week.
"I don't like to change too much. This week we didn't change much and consistency in performance is very important. One thing I'm strong with the girls is to worry about what is and not what might be. So we'll keep it pretty normal," he said.
Let's roll the dice
Fremantle took the risk with injured skipper Kara Donnellan last week in a bid to qualify for the AFLW finals
But the toll on her body to lead the Dockers to victory and second place on the ladder by beating North Melbourne in the last round came back to bite the club in the preliminary final week.
"She has been battling knee soreness all year and we thought she would have to miss a game at some stage to get through. But we were in a situation where every game was must-win, so we kept pushing through," coach Trent Cooper said.
"This week we knew we couldn't go again with her in that state and we just had to hope the other girls would get through and she would have been some chance to play next week."
Too many soldiers down
The Dockers were clearly banged up, with another midfield ace Dana Hooker needing a pain-killing injection in the chest pre-game as well as heavy strapping on a damaged right thigh.
"She was really brave to get through. She had a bad cork (bruising) and an injury to the sternum. She played with a local (injection) in the sternum and it wasn't pretty to see. She was clearly hampered today, but she would've been worse next week had we got through," Cooper said.
The Fremantle rooms looked like a hospital ward post-game with Hayley Miller nursing a hamstring injury, Ashlee Atkins strapped up to protect damage to the AC joint in her right shoulder and brave midfielder Kiara Bowers struggling with a hip ailment.
"I don't know how we would've been able to play next week, to be honest. It did look like an episode of M*A*S*H in the rooms just then (after the game)," the coach said.
CARLTON 1.5 5.7 7.8 9.10 (64)
FREMANTLE 1.1 1.2 2.2 4.4 (28)
Carlton: Dalton 2, Vescio, Prespakis, Harris, Moody, Lucas-Rodd, Walker, Hosking
Fremantle: O'Sullivan 2, Houghton, Duffy
Carlton: Brazzale, Prespakis, Harris, Davey, Harrington, Moody
Fremantle: Bowers, Hooker, Gooch, Sharp
Fremantle: Donnellan (knee soreness) replaced in selected side by Grieve, Atkins (shoulder), Gooch (wrist), Miller (shoulder)
Carlton: Harrington (shoulder)
Umpires: Toner, Heffernan, McGuinness
Crowd: 7146 at Ikon Park