Gary Ablett received the ultimate sign of respect as Richmond players abandoned their premiership celebrations to guarantee he left the Gabba with the guard of honour a man of his stature deserves.
The Tigers had just finished holding the premiership cup aloft and having their photo taken when they raced to the boundary line to join Geelong players in farewelling one of the game’s greats.
Even the Richmond theme song stopped playing as Ablett left the field to rapturous applause.
Geelong captain Joel Selwood and Norm Smith medallist Dustin Martin paid tribute to Ablett with their speeches after the game.
Selwood said it was difficult to say goodbye to the dual Brownlow medallist.
“There’s a little bald bloke over there and we want to say we love you and we thank you for all you’ve done for the game,” Selwood said in his post-match speech.
“He’s has a hell of a career.
“I was a Geelong supporter growing up so I wasn’t only his teammate, I was also a big fan of what he was able to do for a long period of time. He’s given this game more than anyone I reckon over a 20-year period.
“Credit to Richmond tonight to show that respect. We’re going to miss him I reckon because there might not be another one like him.”
Ablett’s night almost came to an end in the opening minutes when he injured his left shoulder.
He returned with the shoulder taped and in obvious pain, but played out the match.
The superstar midfielder still managed 12 disposals and three score involvements. He went straight to his family after the match as the finality of the moment sunk in.
The loss summed up a tough 2020 for Ablett and his young family after announcing his son Levi’s rare degenerative disorder. Ablett was also forced to leave Perth on a mercy dash home in July before his mother-in-law’s passing.
Star forward Patrick Dangerfield said the players were never in any doubt that Ablett would fight through pain to finish the grand final.
But he said everyone was emotional to know they had played their last game with one of the AFL’s greats.
“It’s emotional for us all to see the back of his playing days,” Dangerfield said.
“In my time in the game I haven’t seen someone dominate for a genuine decade. He’s a pleasure to play with, awful to play against and I count myself lucky as we all do to that we’ve been able to experience him.”