‘Will Gary Ablett improve at Gold Coast?’
That was the burning question being asked by so many AFL pundits before the start of the season.
A large portion predicted he wouldn’t. Unlike his fellow Geelong teammates, the Suns’ midfield was young and inexperienced and their bodies would struggle to cope with the physical demands of the game. Therefore Ablett wouldn’t have the same protection he had in the past and would have to win his own footy more often.
There was also speculation over Ablett’s fitness. He’d missed a few games during previous seasons due to a nagging groin injury. In fact, many thought he’d be lucky to play 11 games.
So, 19 rounds into the season, let’s ask the same question in a different tense: has Gary Ablett improved at Gold Coast?
Yes. Definitely yes.
However Ablett isn’t a better player now because of his ability to find the footy. Nor is he more highly regarded due to his incredible knack for knowing where the goals are.
Ablett is the player he is now because of his development as a leader.
The Suns’ inaugural captain has been a huge – and instant – success in 2011. As an experienced player in a young and developing side, his reputation as a man, as well as a player, has skyrocketed.
In any context, leadership is about giving your all to help the needs of others. Ablett has done just that, selflessly giving time, experience and so much talent to the Suns.
Former Geelong teammate and close friend Cameron Mooney has been stunned by how Ablett has thrived as a leader since leaving the club.
‘He [Ablett] always had leadership material, but we didn’t think he was going to be a great leader. That’s probably why Lingy [Cameron Ling] got the captaincy and we all anointed Joel Selwood as the next captain,’ Mooney told Channel 7’s AFL Game Day on Sunday.
‘But his captaincy [of Gold Coast] has just been unbelievable. It’s probably the biggest thing that’s stood out to us about how he’s going at the moment.’
Ablett is a man who leads by example. We constantly hear about how hard he trains during the week and how hard he works during a game.
Yes his average of 29 disposals per game this season is five less than his Brownlow medal year in 2009. But a career-high average of six tackles per game means he’s working just as hard without the footy, something that must please coach Guy McKenna.
Mooney believes the necessity for Ablett to lead by example at the Suns, due to the club having so many inexperienced players, has helped transform his character.
‘Going up there with…this young group [may have brought the best out in him],’ he said.
‘Maybe at Geelong he was comfortable, but he maybe didn’t feel he needed to be that exuberant kind of guy. But up there I think he is.’
But it’s been Ablett’s attitude and actions without the footy that has impressed many.
Despite Gold Coast winning just three games for the season, the 27-year-old has remained mature and positive at all times. On countless occasions, he’s approached young players in the rooms on game day and given them a pat on the back while offering words of encouragement.
For instance, when NRL convert Karmichael Hunt made a blunder just before half time of the Suns’ match against St Kilda on the weekend, Ablett sort after Hunt during the long break. Rather than criticise him, Ablett discussed how Hunt could improve and what he could do next time he was in a similar situation.
Ablett’s come out of his shell in the media too.
During his nine years at the Cats, the 27-year-old preferred to keep out of the spotlight. He knew he was talented, had great family genes and meant so much to Geelong.
But since moving north, Ablett’s made a concerted effort to promote the club in the public domain. He’s constantly been at the centre of press conferences, always giving honest answers about tricky issues.
For Ablett, this season has been about seniority.
At Geelong, he had an array of experience surrounding him. But at Gold Coast, he is the senior player, and to his credit, he’s taken the title on board.
Ablett is due to ‘return home’ on Saturday when Gold Coast travels to Skilled Stadium to take on all-conquering Geelong.
It’ll be fascinating to see how the blue and white faithful welcome him. The star midfielder was an outstanding servant of the Cats, but his decision to leave them in favour of a new challenge – and perhaps a little extra cash – angered a large portion of supporters.
It’s going to be an eerie feeling, to say the least.
However, Cats fans will witness a new Ablett on Saturday – a man who’s developed into a class act and a genuine leader.
‘Gazza’ may not have improved his average disposal count or significantly added to his goal tally since moving to Gold Coast.
But his leadership and reputation increase make him just as influential and valuable as previous seasons.