Watch Gazza go, says Ling, back in a final at the MCG
GEELONG premiership skipper Cameron Ling expects Gary Ablett to silence the critics when he makes his long-awaited return to finals footy tonight with the Cats.
The two-time Brownlow medallist will play his first finals match in eight years when Geelong takes on Melbourne in an elimination final at the MCG.
He played in a losing preliminary final with the Cats in 2010, when captained by Ling, before heading north to endure a difficult stint on the Gold Coast.
"It's a fair break," said Ling, now Channel 7's AFL boundary rider.
"When he runs out there in front of 90,000 at the 'G' on a Friday night, he'll be thinking 'This is what I've missed. This is magic'.
"I'm assuming he'll handle it the way he handles most things - he just plays great footy.
"He's a not a nervous bloke, he's not a nervous footballer, but there might be a little butterfly."
Ablett, who played in the 2007 and 2009 premierships alongside Ling, has had his share of detractors since returning to Geelong.
In his 17th season and to appear in his 321st game, he is one of the last two players picked from the so-called "Superdraft" of 2001. The other is Luke Hodge.
Ablett's contested disposal, clearance and tackle counts are slightly down on previous years, but the 34-year-old is still ranked No.1 at Geelong for average disposals (29), average metres gained (460) and average forward-50m entries (5).
Ling said Ablett had been "very good" and the criticism he'd copped was "completely unfair".
"He's not Gary Ablett of 2009, 2012, his Brownlow years. He's not 26, 27 years of age," Ling said.
"His body is a bit sore and he can't cover as much ground, explode out of packs as magnificently as he once did.
"If we're asking him to be that, it's a ridiculous request."
Ablett was the catalyst for Geelong's come-from-behind win over Melbourne in round 18 after the Cats were down by 29 points in the last term.
"Gaz was the one who got them going through the middle of the ground," Ling recalled.
Melbourne go into the clash slightly favoured to reverse that result.
Led by young bulls Clayton Oliver, Angus Brayshaw and James Harmes, and dour skipper Nathan Jones, the Demons are the undisputed contested-ball kings of 2018.
But the club will be play its first final in 12 years.
"I've been so impressed with Melbourne," Ling said, "but how are the players going to handle their first final in so long?
"You would think Geelong would have a major focus on the first quarter, the first 10 minutes, making sure they get that right to throw a heap of doubt into the minds of the Melbourne players.
"That first 10 minutes, you've never felt intensity like it before, you've never heard a crowd like it - that's the bit that can get you a touch."
If still playing, Ling would most likely have been assigned the job of trying to curb Oliver at the stoppages, but the on-time tagger anointed "hardnut" Brayshaw as the Dee to watch.
"For a bloke who was suffering with the concussions ... I think they, he, everyone was wondering if he was in their best 22," Ling said.
"As soon as he got that spot in the midfield, he has just played amazing football.
"He wins the ball on the inside, but he hurts you on the outside as well.
"I've loved his improvement."