As we enter game two of the 2019 AFL Finals series there looms a realisation that we may be seeing some things for the last time.
It’s a sobering thought that there may be just three games left in the career of the great Gary Ablett. Perhaps two if things go awry this evening.
As the Little Master runs out onto the MCG for game number 343 against the Magpies tonight, there is still the potential for him to have an enormous impact on what could be his last September in the limelight. He is Gary Ablett of course – he can do all things.
By the half-way point of the 2019 season, Ablett was the consensus All-Australian forward pocket, and looked destined to finish his career as the only man to ever reach the lofty heights of nine All-Australian selections. Relishing a new role in the forward pocket with occasional forays into the midfield, Ablett was tearing teams apart with his trademark precision kicking to position, and creativity to set teammates up to score.
Up until Round 15, we were treated to flashes of vintage Ablett with the ball in hand, streaking through half forward with the goals in sight. At two goals per game, just how far he could take the Cats in 2019 was a question that many were asking. They were flying, and with Ablett at something remotely like his best, the Cats looked a dangerous proposition indeed.
However, for the remainder of the year, Ablett started to look a little slower, as though the season itself was beginning to take a toll on him. He’d done the hard yards in the pre-season and got himself cherry ripe to front up in great shape. He hit the season hard and his class was apparent right from the outset. He hassled, chased, marked, goaled and assisted. He looked as though the Cats brains trust had made an inspired move, and many speculated that he could play for years more.
But Father Time catches up with all of us, and the Gary Ablett we saw in the latter part of the 2019 home and away season appeared to be a very different version to the one we saw in the first half of the year.
The goals dried up, as did the attention. It seems that if you’re not ticking the scoreboard over, it doesn’t matter what else you’re doing. Suddenly, and amazingly, Ablett was being left out of mock All-Australian teams, and boy, did that prove to be prophetic or what? Last week as the forwards were announced in the 2019 AA team, the name of Gary Ablett was absent. I’m not sure if, given who he is and what he’s accomplished in the game, he is judged more harshly than others, but at over 20 touches and a goal and a half per game, how he could not warrant a spot in the forward pocket is quite astonishing.
Most who have considered the team post-furore about Shannon Hurn’s second-billing to Nat Fyfe have nodded in agreement that there was a very strong case for the addition of Ablett. Hell, if they can celebrate Buddy’s lifetime achievement award with a dubious selection AND the captaincy, surely Ablett’s 2019 was worth a place in the team?
Sadly, it is probably the last time we’ll see Gaz in the position to make All-Australian again. I can’t see him going around again well enough to be in contention for a spot next season.
He may not go around at all.
At 35 years old, the creaks and groans of his tired old bones would be taking a toll on him. Last season we had Dermott Brereton making claims that Gaz was avoiding contact to preserve his health. It wasnlt a flattering assessment, and it had to have stung the dual Brownlow Medallist. He responded this year with a renewed attack on the contest, his tackling pressure increasing, and his average bumping from 3.79 last year to 4.48 tackles per game. Indeed, when you rank third in the club in tackles laid, no one can question your commitment to working on the defensive end. Derm should probably acknowledge Gaz’s increased willingness to take on the contest.
After all, he is now the all-time leader in contested possessions since the stat has been kept.
But where will it all end for Ablett?
Is it this year that sees him wave goodbye to the game he has dominated for the majority of this millennium? Or does he go around one more time in an effort to give back to the club that drafted him?
So much depends on what occurs over the next four weeks.
A Geelong premiership would see Gaz wander off into retirement a happy man, fulfilled after returning to Geelong from Gold Coast. But what would a loss do? A Grand Final loss? A Prelim loss? Straight sets losses? And what about a close, heartbreaking loss?
Would that be enough to tempt Gaz to put his body through it all one more time? Would it be enough to drive him? And would the ‘what if?’ it would leave dancing around in his thoughts be enough to see him return to the AFL fold for one more try?
Ablett missed the last triumph of the Geelong footy club. Despite losing their best player, the side rallied in the wake of his departure and swept to a brilliant 2011 win. Part of me wonders whether that haunts Gaz at all. They did it without him. They were better in 2011 without him than they were in 2010 with him. He took the money and the opportunity to set himself up well beyond his playing years, but would he do it all again if he had his time over again? He won a Brownlow with the Suns, and prior to his shoulder injury, it looked as though he had a team that could go somewhere as they built around their megastar.
That fell over as soon as Ablett got hurt, then decided he wanted to head back to Geelong.
There were many who anticipated the teaming of Ablett with Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield would reap the rewards the club sought, but things have been shaken up substantially this season. Dangerfield still plies his trade in the middle, but Selwood’s role has diminished to the point where he’d be considered currently as the fifth midfielder in that team. Believe it or not, Gaz would be the sixth option.
2019 is a different world for Gary Ablett. He no longer has the pace to burst from stoppages. He no longer has the strength to shrug tackles as he clears to teammates. His body is older, more brittle and hurting. But what he does have is a wise old head on his shoulder. A wise, old, bald head, and what he now lacks in athletic prowess, he makes up for in guile and footy smarts.
Are we seeing the last of Gary Ablett in 2019? And if so, what memories will he and his Geelong teammates leave us with? Will there be a few moments of Ablett magic as the Cats sweep to a flag? Will he stand up and do something special to compel his teammates to rise in the cut and thrust of finals desperation? Could Gaz turn the clock back and make this September another that belongs to an Ablett?
Or will we be watching a man who realises his time in the game is rapidly coming to an end?
Whichever way the Geelong cookie crumbles this season, I urge you to sit back and take it all in. It is not every day you get to watch a future hall of fame legend of the game run around in September. Gaz will soon enough see his name alongside those like Lockett, Coventry, Skilton and Robran as the best this game has ever seen.
Let’s enjoy it while it lasts. Even if he does go round again in 2020, you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, and whenever Gaz decides to hang ‘em up, it’ll be too soon for many.
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