For Gary Ablett Jr, the 2016 season represents more than the prospect of taking his team to the finals for the first time. It’s his chance to remind everyone who is king of the AFL.
His crown has been taken by a 24-year-old dynamo. His team regressed a year or two last season. He’s played 21 games in the past two seasons, having seriously injured his shoulder in 2014.
He’s 32 years old.
Fremantle’s Nat Fyfe is undisputedly the best player in the AFL coming into the 2016 season.
My colleague Cam Rose will be firing up The Roar’s Top 50 AFL players in the coming weeks, and there is little doubt that number seven will be voted the best of the best. His 2015 season, where he came within one vote in the AFL Coaches Association award from sweeping the three most important individual awards, was one for the ages.
But it was three short weeks in September that saw Fyfe conquer football. First came his first-minute leg break in the Dockers’ preliminary final loss, where the champion resembled a wounded gazelle as he hobbled from contest to contest in an effort to have an impact. Then he won the Brownlow, after rocking up sporting a cane, and delivered a speech more akin to a 34-year-old than a 24-year-old. The following day, this picture was born.
Brownlow Medallist Nat Fyfe back on the air this morning as he does the media rounds. pic.twitter.com/kFCNhQ3AXR
— Patrick Keane (@AFL_PKeane) September 28, 2015
It complemented his Men’s Health spread from August, and return to his home town of Lake Grace in the West Australian Wheatbelt in the days following his Brownlow medal win. ‘Nat Fyfe’ the brand was born.
As a reminder, from Round 4 to Round 14 last season, Fyfe polled 26 of a possible 30 votes in the Brownlow medal. He missed the votes in a solitary game (a Round 10 loss to Richmond) and had the three pinched off of him by Lachie Neale in Round 6. It was pure footballing madness; he deserved every one of those 26 votes, such was his output and influence.
For Ablett, who has played 21 games since winning his second Brownlow medal in 2013, the landscape atop the league’s Mount Everest has changed immensely. The AFL he left in 2014 is vastly different to the one that he returns to, fully fit, in 2016.
Ablett suffered an uncharacteristic – for a player that had missed just 17 of a possible 259 games between 2003 and 2013 – injury in Round 16, 2014, when an innocuous Brent Macaffer tackle resulted in a dislocated shoulder. At that time, he was the raging Brownlow medal favourite; odds on to be the first player since Robert Harvey in 1998 to win it in consecutive years.
On the night of the count, it emerged that he had garnered 22 votes in the 14 full games he played, a ratio of votes to games played (1.57, or 35 votes for the year) that would have seen him beat winner Matthew Priddis’ 26 votes, had he suited up in all 22 games. In fact he would have polled the most votes in the history of the 3-2-1 system.
Ablett returned to the field in the opening rounds of 2015, but it was clear his shoulder hadn’t healed. His output was curtailed, both by his own limitations and the tactics of his opponents, and it was decided that some additional recovery time was required. Ablett reemerged in Round 14 to steer his side to victory over North Melbourne (in the Suns’ second win of the year to that point), and stayed on the park for another four games until a knee injury ruled him out for 2015.
The Suns had a poor year both on and off the field. Ablett was one of a host of important players who missed games, and it’s debatable whether the Suns would have been a better team with their best player available for more than five and a bit games. Perhaps their four-win tally would have been closer to the eight achieved in 2013, or ten in 2014 – regardless, he was not going to make up the nine wins that would have been required to see the Suns break into the final eight.
He’s not that good – no player is – but he is very good. The Gary Ablett that was on track for back-to-back Brownlow medals in 2014 was, almost undoubtedly, the best player in the game. Hair or no hair, beard or no beard.
Sports fans, you don’t need a football writer to remind you of just how good this man was in the first ten years of his career. But in the usual way, let’s visualise it to give some context as to just how well he’s performed, for a long period of time.
This chart – with a new coat of paint for the 2016 season – shows how Gary Ablett Jr’s yearly contested and uncontested possession per game counts compared to the rest of the competition’s midfielders, from 2007 to 2013. I’ve used a five-plus game in a season, 15-plus disposal per game benchmark to develop the ‘rest of the competition’ numbers.
Ablett has been significantly above average in each of these seven years, a feat which six other players can claim to have achieved over this period. However none of them did so on two different teams, and none have done so to the same extent Ablett has.
And don’t the Suns know it. When I had a deep look at the Gold Coast Suns’ situation in October last year, I found a team that simply couldn’t afford injuries to its key players. The Suns and Giants have been given an incredible array of list-building concessions, one of which was the ability to sign a number of mature-age players to help shepherd the bevy of top draft picks into the AFL ecosystem.
Put simply, the Suns’ mature recruiting has been a near-complete catastrophe. It meant when last season’s injury rash spread throughout the entire starting midfield, the Suns were exposed.
Ablett’s reemergence will coincide with the return of David Swallow, Dion Prestia, Jack Martin and Jaeger O’Meara to the middle of the ground. The starting five on-ballers will, for all intents and purposes, be completely different to the lineup the Suns were forced to trot out for most of 2015. We will get to see what this maturing midfield chock full of blue chips, headlined by the best player of the past decade, can do for the first time.
That we’ll get to see this group go to work is obvious. What isn’t so obvious is how Ablett can perform, as a 32-year-old, coming off of an 18-month injury layoff.
As above, Ablett missed just 18 games in the 11 years of his career since establishing himself in Geelong’s side, which is one of the better runs in recent AFL history. His 2014 and 2015 layoffs have taken that missed games tally to 40, which, for a player who has 325 total career games available to play, remains a very good strike rate. His longevity can’t be questioned.
But what can be questioned is what the timing of his past two injury-affected years means for his career. Turning 32 this year, Ablett’s injuries have come at the start of the twilight of his career.
Since the year 2000, there have been just 30 instances of players aged 30 or over that have missed 22 games or more in the two immediate years prior, after they had turned 30. Of those 30 players, just eight played again. And of those eight players that did play again, seven played less than 20 games over the remainder of their career.
The one that didn’t was sure-fire Hall of Famer Robert Harvey, who played 106 of his 383 games after the age of 32. Harvey missed 13 of St Kilda’s games in 2001, and 12 in 2002 (cruelly, the two years he captained the side), with knee and shoulder injuries respectively.
Prior to those two years, Harvey had played 236 of a possible 292 games for St Kilda over 13 seasons, giving him a games-played rate of 81 per cent. Ablett’s strike rate up until 2013 was 90 per cent (253 of a possible 281) in 12 years.
This suggests that Ablett may prove to be a Harvey-like exception to what is otherwise a very hard and fast AFL rule: players that have long injury lay-offs after the age of 30 simply don’t get back on the park. Ablett’s mostly injury-free career history suggest he is one of those rare physical specimens that keeps on keeping on, despite the stresses and strains football places upon his body.
His isn’t an ability to physically impose himself on his opponents – although ask teammate Matt Shaw what he thinks about that comment – but that’s because he’s simultaneously three steps ahead of everyone, and has the footballing ability to give life to his visions of grandeur. As fellow football aficionado Jay Croucher said discussing Ablett last season, “Ablett has never had that supreme athletic aura – he’s more like a video game character with a rating of 100.”
Nat Fyfe’s emergence in 2015 may have been like finding one of those hidden characters in NBA Jam, with question marks in place of numbers in their player ratings. For many, it meant Gary Ablett Jr, and his career laden with Brownlow medals, All Australian jerseys and MVP awards, faded into some forgotten tapestry.
When his shoulder popped in the second half of 2014, the Gold Coast Suns were a top-eight team, on the cusp of making the finals, if not immediately then surely in the 2015 season. Between then and now, his team has won just five of its 29 games, fired its coach, and endured a series of off-field controversies.
The king has returned, with his kingdom in ruin. In 2016, we’ll see if he can rebuild his throne, and retake his crown.