Time for a (Little) Master Class

There are those in our sport who are judged a little more harshly than others. When Lance Franklin has a down day, we start to question his fitness. Some even start questioning whether Sydney made the right call in signing him to such a long term deal.

We were quick to sink the boots in when Dustin Martin failed to start 2018 as he finished 2017, despite his level of play being vastly superior to 95% of players in the game this season. And we have crucified Taylor Walker for his output in 2018 after barely making it through pre-season and willing himself through the year.

Yes, there are some we hold to a higher standard; none more so than the Little Master.

By anyone’s standards, Gary Ablett’s 2018 has been an excellent season. He has compiled season numbers of 29.17 disposals per game whilst playing in 18 contests. He’s kicked 16 goals, and averages almost 7.8 score involvements per contest. He had 3.66 tackles, 11.06 contested touches and 4.56 clearances.

Compare this to some of his peers who have been lauded for their 2018 efforts.

Shaun Higgins averaged 27.4 touches per game and provided valuable run and carry all year for the Roos. He competed in 20 games and kicked 14 goals whilst having a hand in 7.3 score involvements per game. He had 2.90 tackles, 10.65 contested touches per contest, and averaged 5.1 clearances, but at no stage did anyone ever question his defensive running or pressure.

Gary Ablett was not afforded the same courtesy.

There was a groundswell of support for Higgins. He was called a Rolls Royce by some, perhaps prematurely parking him into the same garage as Scott Pendlebury, but in terms of impact and sheer numbers, Higgins’ year was inferior to that of Ablett.

Ablett v Higgins 2018

Speaking of Pendlebury, he found his way into the All-Australian squad of 40 yet again, but ultimately failed to make the cut. Still, Ablett was nowhere to be seen in that squad despite a season that warranted consideration.

Pendlebury averaged 27.81 touches over 21 games, so he has Ablett covered in terms of consistency. He slotted home nine goals for the year and contributed to 6.1 score involvements per game. He notched an impressive 5.9 tackles per contest and added 10.9 contested touches per game. His clearance numbers were also impressive, with 5.9 per game. Numbers comparable to Ablett.

Ablett v Pendlebury 2018

And there’s his teammate, Steele Sidebottom, who slotted comfortably into his first All-Australian team, with 29.59 touches per game and 12 goals over 22 games. He had 6.5 score involvements and 3.82 tackles per contest. He rounded out his year with 9.86 contested possessions per match. His 3.77 clearances per game were substantially less than I thought they would be.

Ablett v Sidebottom 2018

Could it be that the four games Gaz missed in 2018 were a factor? Possibly, but it didn’t seem to be a factor into Lance Franklin’s All-Australian selection, or in his appointment as Captain.

So what is it about Gary Ablett that causes us, and you I’m guessing, to judge him differently to those mentioned above?

I suppose Gary could take it as a compliment, but there has not been anyone like him to judge him against. At 34 years of age, the only person we can use as the barometer for his performance is Gary Ablett, himself. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is inherently unfair.

Comparing the 34 year old Gary Ablett to the disposal-accumulating machine of five years ago considerably devalues what he currently does for the Cats. For six straight years he averaged North of 30 touches per game. But for a hamstring injury cutting short his Round 3 performance against the Eagles, he may have topped that mark again (OK… he would’ve needed 15 touches in that last quarter, but hey… we’re talking about Gaz here!). Ablett has been so good for so long that his good is considered great by the standard of anyone else, yet when applied to his own standards, such is his sustained level of excellence, comes across as below par.

But I guess that puts things in perspective. At 34 years of age, Gary Ablett is doing things in this league that those supposedly in their prime cannot accomplish. Only 12 players averaged more touches per game than him in 2018. Behind him sit names like Fyfe, Beams, Dangerfield, Coniglio, Whitfield, Merrett and Shiel. You think some of those guys had pretty good years, right?

He is ninth in the league in score involvements, just 0.1 behind Jack Riewoldt, and ahead of elite small forwards like Breust, Melksham, Gunston and Gray. Amazingly, he is a good 50 places ahead of forward/mid maestro, Shane Edwards in the player rankings. Edwards is a man perceived as having the golden touch as the Tigers are propelled forward. He was a beast when looking at direct goal assists, and he was rewarded with an All-Australian blazer based on that, yet his impact on the scoreboard in terms of overall involvements is substantially less than that of Ablett.

Score Involvements per game 2018

Franklin led the league. Others have been omitted

But maybe he doesn’t hurt when he gets the ball, right? That’s an easy argument to make. Maybe he just dishes off with the easy handball or the little sideways chip kick? If you’re a critic, you’d like to think so, I’m sure, but I’m here to burst your bubble. He is 16th in the competition in this stat as well, gaining an average of 462.4 metres per game. This is ahead of Tom Mitchell, Dustin Martin, Patrick Dangerfield and Rory Laird. All of them were All-Australian. Not bad for an old fella.

Metres gained per game 2018

Short was the league leader. Higgins was 13th

Ablett’s return to Sleepy Hollow was viewed as the third coming (the first was his father’s return from his retirement in 1991, the second was Gaz Jr’s arrival) and for good reason. He is possibly the best midfielder we’ve seen. He is surely the best of the modern age. He’s prolific, he’s damaging, he’s playing above the level a 34 should be expected to, and he is doing it under the scornful gaze of the AFL media.

Good news stories don’t sell newspapers, and despite negative press here and there, ridiculous criticism from Dermott Brereton about the angle of his body when kicking for a match-winning goal, and a football community that expect him to be some kind of Superman on a weekly basis, Ablett has done all that’s been asked of him.

And more.

On the eve of the 2018 finals series, people would be well-served in remembering that this is a man playing with a renewed sense of purpose. He has not set foot on the MCG in September since his last season with the Cats in 2010. In that game, he notched the lazy 40 touches against Collingwood, albeit, in a crushing Preliminary Final loss.

Gary Ablett is built for September, but robbed himself of the chance to excel repeatedly on the AFL’s biggest stage with a move to the Gold Coa$t for the 2011 season. In finals from 2007 to 2010, he ticked over at 30.5 touches per game. History tells us he doesn’t shrink in finals; he rises to the occasion.

With time ticking down on a storied career, Ablett is looking to make up for lost time. His 2018 has been solid at the worst of times, and spectacular at the best, but a big finals series would go a long way to reminding people of just how good he was, and just how great he still is.


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