David Packman looks at the influence of Gary Ablett Jnr on the AFL’s Gold Coast Suns and wonders if any team in any sport right now is so dependent on one individual.
Late on a Saturday afternoon last July, Gold Coast Suns captain Gary Ablett Jnr was thrown to the turf by rugged Collingwood tagger Brent Macaffer. The resulting dislocated shoulder and subsequent reconstructive surgery ruled out the game’s most influential midfielder for the remainder of the 2014 season.
At that time, the Suns – in only their fourth year of AFL competition – were bearing down on their first finals campaign. Questions had already been raised about the young team’s heavy reliance on Ablett, but that aside, the immediate challenge was to keep out the surging Magpies for the final 50 minutes without their main man and spiritual leader.
Having already lost other key players to significant injuries that afternoon, Gold Coast had no fit players left to rotate on their bench. Nonetheless, they rose magnificently to the occasion, etching a stirring five-point home ground victory into the somewhat vacant pages of their record books.
“The perseverance and courage to keep running until the final siren was certainly a sign of us growing up tonight,” said then coach, Guy “Bluey” McKenna.
Things were looking good for this group of capable and talented young men, and it seemed that they could continue on undeterred with Ablett missing for the rest of the season. The only sour note in many people’s minds was that – after achieving so much for his emerging side – “the little master” would not be playing alongside them come finals in September.
As history shows, despite such instant heroics, the rudderless Suns embarked on a horror run in Ablett’s absence, winning just one of the their final seven games in 2014 – and that against bottom of the ladder St Kilda. As a result, they tumbled from a season-high third to missing out on a post-season altogether.
Media and public scrutiny had begun to intensify around the Gold Coast Suns with each ensuing loss. The young team – once heralded as finally coming of age – were nothing but a rabble, incapable of winning without their inspirational skipper. They were the Samson of the AFL – and they had certainly taken a haircut with the loss of Gary Ablett Jnr.
At season’s end, the circling vultures continued to lower around Metricon Stadium and, unfortunately, something had to be offered up as a sacrifice. After a hurried “internal review” coach McKenna was fired.
This seemed to placate the masses, and when experienced coach “Rocket” Rodney Eade was snatched from his duties as Director of Coaching at Collingwood and given the role, the smiles returned to sunny Southern Queensland. The theory was that McKenna had developed the boys as far as he could and now they had matured, Eade could successfully guide them into their first finals showing in 2015.
What’s more, “Gazza” would be back to his best after completing his shoulder rehabilitation and furthermore, the Suns had traded well in the off-season, bringing in seasoned Sydney Swans premiership player Nick Malceski to firm up the defense.
Even with the pre-season loss of young gun and Ablett heir apparent Jaegar O’Meara to a season-ending knee injury, most pundits agreed with the positive view coming from Metricon Stadium and had the Gold Coast Suns sneaking into the top eight, which would give them their first finals appearance.
Fast-forward to this week and The Suns currently sit at 0-3 with Gary Ablett Jnr once again in the spotlight. It was clear in the opening round his shoulder just wasn’t right. Grimacing in pain on several occasions, he was half the player he can be. He still managed to kick two goals – even half fit he has extraordinary powers – but his usual flair and ability to impact the contest was sorely missing. He played on in the team’s second loss a week later but has now been shelved indefinitely – finally giving in to that troublesome shoulder.
The loss to Geelong was more respectable, with the Suns at least showing some semblance of resilience against the depleted Cats, Cats, Ablett’s former team which is also struggling at the wrong end of the table. It was a big improvement from the first two rounds and showed that there is still a pulse.
After the match, Eade remarked that his team was “going to have to grow up quickly”. Certainly a turnaround from McKenna’s remarks after the Collingwood win nine months previously – but interestingly, in both cases it was all about growing up.
The Gold Coast Suns have now gone 12 matches for one win since Ablett was sidelined with an average losing margin of 47 points. With news this week that the he has inked another three-year deal with the club, the question remains – how can a football club be so reliant on a single player?
Is the on-field parental supervision still that much required for a team still “growing up” in their fifth AFL season?
Or is it that Gary Ablett Jnr – the marquee signing that captured most of the column inches back in 2010 before Gold Coast Suns had even played a game – has simply forced the rest of the team into obscurity since day one?
Maybe he’s just simply that good and his shoulder gave way after carrying the rest of the team for so long.
Turning 31 in May, Ablett is already considered one of the greats of the game. He is a dual premiership player and a dual Brownlow Medallist – and let’s not forget he was an almost unbackable favorite to win a third in 2014 before his injury.
Ablett is also a record five-time recipient of the Leigh Matthews Trophy as the AFL Players Association’s Most Valuable Player, a three-time recipient of the AFL Coaches Association “Champion Player of the Year” award, and an eight-time All-Australian.
Before his departure from Geelong to join the Suns, he was a two-time Carji Greeves Medallist, a recipient of the Cat’s leading goalkicker award, a life member, and had been inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame.
Other than last year (as a result of his injury) he has won every “Best and Fairest” award at the Gold Coast Suns since the medal was first on offer in 2011.
If that’s not enough, joining him (and arguably even surpassing him depending on who has the loudest voice at the bar) on the list of AFL greats is his father, Gary Ablett Snr. As the greatest Geelong player of all time and a member of the AFL Team of the Century, Gary Snr has a highlights reel second to none and was known as “God” during his spectacular 248 games – prompting us to perhaps consider Gary Jnr as the “Son of God.”
Humbly, when asked about a comparison, Gary Jnr has insisted, “I don’t even think I’m close. In my opinion, my dad is the best player to ever play the game.”
Accolades aside, if individual greatness can be measured in any way by a team’s collective fortunes, the success of few other clubs in AFL history appears to hinge to such a large degree on not just the performance – but the mere presence – of any one player as much as Gary Ablett Jnr and the Gold Coast Suns.
This weekend looms as a fresh line in the sand for the Gold Coast as they find themselves up against fellow newcomers to the AFL, Greater Western Sydney Giants – a team that entered the AFL in 2012, two years after Gold Coast’s debut season, and which has similarly struggled to find success. A loss would be catastrophic and if online polls are anything to go by, the public currently has them as outsiders.
Seems we’ve all cottoned on to the Ablett factor.
It begs us to ask the question, is there any other team in any sport around the world right now that is as dependent on one individual player for ensuring its success as Gold Coast is on Gazza Jr?
Photo Credit: AAP/File
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