Bruce McAvaney, the highly-respected doyen of the Seven Network’s multi-sport coverage, had a throwaway line midway through Thursday night’s Geelong v Brisbane AFL match. And a throwaway line about one of this generation’s elite players.
“Gee, Gary Ablett, he seems to be struggling out there tonight, isn’t he?”
McAvaney’s words there – and one had better be reading them in Bruce’s voice, in their own minds – drew the ire of many on social media, especially on Twitter and Geelong fan forums on Facebook, and rightfully so.
Ablett, who has already publicly stated that 2020 will be his final AFL season as a player, did things on the SCG paddock that will not show up on any statistical ledgers, and basically willed the Cats to peg back from a 22-point second-term deficit to run out 27-point winners.
Certainly there were moments where he made mistakes before that eight-minute mark of the second quarter where Geelong began to make that comeback – one short kick out on the full springs to mind. But as it goes with legends, their rare brain fades are either magnified, or the fans can give them a free pass on them.
After 351 games, two Brownlow Medals, and two Premiership flags as his resume to date, all of us – fans, peers, and journalists alike – can afford to give Ablett the occasional “get out of jail, free” card whenever he commits the odd miscue.
Gary Ablett and son, Levi.
But those moments on Thursday night at the SCG were – as much as McAvaney had overblown them and his broadcast colleagues chided him for even merely suggesting them – blown out of proportion, Ablett produced his best footy for the match in the two-plus quarters yet to follow.
Much of what he did cannot be quantified in black ink alone. His stat line of, most significantly, two goals, 14 possessions, and three tackles may not suggest like much of a contribution, but the intangible contributions he had in the Cats’ remarkable win spoke volumes.
And it was happening early. When Quentin Narkle went off the ground five minutes after the opening bounce with a hamstring injury, he was seen to display a good deal of negative body language. And understandbly so, as he was told that his night was done. Ablett, already having a breather on the bench himself from coach Chris Scott’s normal rotations system, proceeded to tell Narkle reassuring words to the effect of, “Mate, don’t worry, we have your back.”
And that’s with the Cats’ bench down two players, as Narkle had joined Mitch Duncan on the outer with a hamstring injury of his own, incurred only moments earlier. Ablett may not be Geelong’s captain by title, but that was a moment where he exercised the quality of leadership that comes from his great depth of experiences in the AFL wars.
Also, for as prolifically as he has built a career for doing freakish skilled actions with a Sherrin firmly handled in his mitts, Ablett can do the dirty work around the contests any time in which that is required. In addition to his three credited tackles, Ablett was quick to apply first hands to the football – not so much to add to his possession count, but rather sacrificing that so other Geelong players could have a go at handling the footy in better positions.
An underrated element of Ablett’s game is his physical toughness. Over the course of 19 seasons of senior football, his role has evolved to the point now of taking care of the one-percenters all around the ground. And he loves to tackle opponents – his physical strength in applying tackles is only matched by his commitment to be the player who makes those tackles. It is an area of his game that he has dedicated himself to work on, and the results show.
Of course, having the likes of Patrick Dangerfield, Tom Hawkins, Gary Rohan, Joel Selwood, and countless others who can influence good, attacking footy, means that he is not relied upon as much to turn a game on its ear in the way of Ablett’s own mind-blowing abilities. But as breathtaking as he can do it, in 2020, it is actually another luxury Scott, his players, and footy fans can enjoy and relish.
As for his statistical line on Thursday night, Ablett:
Kicked a couple of breathtaking goals, one being the Cats’ opener and the other was the one after halftime that inspired a third-term run of one-way traffic in the middle of a run of nine majors on the trot from Geelong.
Only two goals? He’s never been the kind of player who could kick a bag of goals – certainly not like his father had a reputation of doing in the famous navy blue-and-white hoops of the Cats – but can just about always be counted upon for kicking timely goals.
Only 14 possessions? Gone are the days in which Ablett could routinely rack up 30-plus disposals in a single match – nor does Scott require him, in his system, to even do that. His possessions taken on Thursday night was a matter of quality over quantity.
And just three tackles? While he is great at laying the tackles and showing a love and dedication in doing so, his toughness and commitment to the one-percenters are now measured in so many other ways.
If anything, amid the inevitable comparative barstool debate of, “who’s better, Gary Ablett Sr or Gary Ablett Jr?”, at the age of 36, which is seemingly ancient in footy terms, Ablett Jr’s overall game – arguably better than that of his old man’s ever was – seems to be reaching new heights as the Cats keep on winning. Even when it may appear to some that he may not be doing much at all.