Gold Coast Sun Gary Ablett jnr and Hawthorn’s Will Langford flank their famous fathers, Geelong’s Gary Ablett and Hawk Chris Langford. Photo: Getty Images
Almost a quarter of a century after his father was given the challenge of curbing a fellow called Gary Ablett in a storied grand final, Hawthorn's Will Langford could well be asked to do the same on Saturday evening.
Langford is the logical opponent for this second Gary Ablett, having been assigned to Fremantle's most potent remaining midfielder, David Mundy, last Friday, and started on Jobe Watson – another progeny of a 1980s champion – in round two. Thus, the formline suggests the four-game Hawk should be among the opponents for Ablett; we say ''opponents'' because Gary often chews through more than one.
Langford's father Chris, a 300-game full-back and Hawthorn captain, was sent on to the first Gary Ablett midway through the second quarter of the 1989 grand final, replacing Scott Maginness. Ablett, to that point, had booted four goals, including one in which he leapt over a pair of ruckmen at a boundary throw-in and snapped the ball across his body as he landed.
Gary senior finished with the grand final record of nine goals, but Langford still performed well against an opponent at the height of his superpowers, and played an important role in getting the Hawks home by six points in a fabled grand final. Langford thwarted the Cats late in the game when he took a very high and audacious mark from behind, timing his leap and pluck perfectly.
Peter Schwab, the former Hawks coach (and now Lions assistant) watched the 1989 grand final from the stands due to an ill-timed suspension. His recollection is that Langford, a long-time AFL commissioner, performed well, despite the goals conceded. ''He took some telling marks and intercepts at different times,'' said Schwab. ''Plus, he had to go to him pretty early because he stitched up Scotty Maginness pretty quick.''
Schwab thought it ''an interesting decision'' by then coach Allan Jeans ''not to go to Chris straight away'' in that grand final.
The first Ablett v Langford match-up – which continued through the 1990s – pitted a key forward against a taller key defender. Gary senior was listed at 185 centimetres, but, as that snapped goal in the '89 grannie showcased, he played like someone 205 centimetres, such was his leap and power.
Ablett v Langford II would be a contest of midfielders, between an older champ and a youngster who is learning the craft. The next generation is smaller than their fathers (Ablett 182 centimetres, Langford 187 centimetres), with Ablett owning the stockier, fast-twitch physique. The inter-generational similarity – assuming this contest happens – is that the Langfords are cast in the negating role, the norm for anyone who plays on a Gary Ablett.
''It's different in a way because they're going to be playing around the middle,'' said Schwab. ''But the influence of Gary is just as significant for his side as his father's was for his team, way back when.''
Langford was first trialled as a run-with midfielder at Box Hill by the Hawks last year, in part to protect the kid from his own reckless courage – he kept finding collisions in defence. His bravery is complemented by leg speed and concentration – traits that are helpful, if hardly sufficient, for containing the game's premier player.
''I think he's going well, really well. He's got good run,'' Schwab said of his former teammate's son, adding that Langford the younger's kicking could improve. ''But his effort and his commitment have been great.''
On Saturday evening on the Gold Coast, they're playing for four points, not a premiership. It's not a game likely to become the AFL's answer to the mythical battles of King Arthur, like the 1989 grand final. But if it's Langford on Ablett, it will make history of a sort.