West Coast's finals aspirations, on the brink a fortnight ago, received another significant boost yesterday when game-breaking Essendon forward Jake Carlisle was ruled out of tomorrow's match at Etihad Stadium with back spasms.
Carlisle's omission was offset somewhat by the return of inspirational captain Jobe Watson, but the Bombers' forward options took a massive hit when the strapping 22-year-old couldn't be considered.
After a quiet start to the season, Carlisle gradually found form and then exploded against Collingwood in round 17, amassing 26 disposals, 19 marks and four goals in the Bombers' 64-point win.
Seven days later, he had 19 possessions, 12 marks and eight goals as Essendon rallied to beat the Western Bulldogs.
Carlisle was quiet against Sydney a fortnight ago and poor against Richmond last Friday night. The Bombers lost both matches, raising the stakes for tomorrow.
Essendon recalled rebounding defender Michael Hibberd after two games out with a hamstring injury, and named youngsters Patrick Ambrose and Ariel Steinberg.
Fringe trio Orazio Fantasia, Cory Dell'Olio and Elliott Kavanagh were dropped.
West Coast were required to make just one change, replacing injured defender Xavier Ellis (AC joint) with utility player Simon Tunbridge.
The Eagles have blitzed Adelaide and Collingwood in the past fortnight, placing them within striking distance of a September berth.
Coach Adam Simpson urged his players yesterday to grasp the opportunity.
Simpson declared retiring veteran Dean Cox and a sore Nic Naitanui certain starters alongside Scott Lycett, meaning the Eagles will go in again with three genuine ruckmen.
The match has major ramifications for both sides, with the Eagles just one win adrift of the eighth-placed Essendon and facing winnable games against Melbourne (home) and Gold Coast (away) to round out their home-and-away campaign.
Simpson said the players knew they were playing a third consecutive virtual elimination final, having overcome the Crows and Magpies.
"Every week's potentially our last game where we are available for finals, so we just have to win to be alive," he said.
But Simpson doubted he would need to worry about complacency creeping into the group.
"We have played two good games in a row," he said. "I hope the players don't think that's any type of achievement, really. They are events at the moment. We need to make it a pattern. It takes more than two weeks.
"They should have confidence about what we have achieved, but I don't think they are satisfied."
Simpson said the team had enjoyed a light week at training so could cope with a six-day break and travel.
"Three or four weeks ago we embarked on finishing off the year well and doing some basic KPIs based around winning your own ball," Simpson said. "It's really simple what we're going through at the moment, but it's paid off a little bit."
"Every week's potentially our last game … so we just have to win to be alive.""Eagles coach *Adam Simpson *