There might be no real comparison between soldiers at war and players in a game of rugby league, but for centuries, each has borrowed off the other to inspire. “Let’s knock Jerry for six” was a popular cricket saying used by British and Australian soldiers in both World Wars, and even in more modern wars, when things went wrong it was “an own goal”. One of our modern heroes, Sgt Matt Locke, an SAS soldier who won a Medal of Gallantry in Afghanistan and was later killed, is commemorated each year in a rugby league match between the Army’s league team and the local Bellingen team.
I spent all of last week in Canberra covering the Kangaroos’ and Kiwis’ preparations for the ANZAC Test. The players from both teams spent time with Victoria Cross winners, including the incredibly brave and impressive Ben Roberts-Smith, and were privileged to receive a behind-the-scenes tour of the Australian War Memorial.
Australian captain Cameron Smith spoke at length about the experience of meeting such inspiring people – and while he was quick to point out ‘going into battle’ in an NRL sense is entirely different from the real thing – he says much can be ‘borrowed’ from our armed forces to be applied on the field. Not ever letting your teammates down was a big one for him, and it is the kind of thing that would of course be endorsed by Ben Roberts-Smith. You’ll remember the first half of the ANZAC Test – the Kiwis kept attacking Australia’s line – but the Kangaroos’ defence held up – most of the time anyway! I asked Matt Scott after the game if that defence may have been inspired by the VC winners – and he replied in the affirmative.
This round, including Thursday’s ANZAC Day clashes between the Roosters and the Dragons and the Storm and the Warriors, will pay tribute to all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country – so that we may lead the kind of lives Australians are incredibly lucky to live. Soldiers fight for their society, and sport is a defining characteristic of our society.
More than 30,000 fans should pack into Allianz Stadium to watch the likes of Sonny Bill Williams, James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce take on the newly revitalised St George Illawarra – who seem to have found their mojo after three consecutive wins and are celebrating the signings of Gareth Widdop and Joel Thompson for next year. It should be an epic contest: it always is when these two meet on this special occasion – you only have to remember last year!
My dad was in the army for more than 40 years – as well as a rugby league tragic I’m a proud army brat. I have lots of friends serving in the Australian Defence Force – including a few on overseas deployments. I get weekly inbox messages on Facebook from these soldiers – not asking how I’m doing or how mutual friends are faring, nor does their interest lie in the state of the Australian economy, or how Julia Gillard is going in the polls… no – they’re asking about rugby league.
They want to know who’s winning, who’s losing, which big-name recruit delivered – which huge signing hasn’t, who will play in the halves for New South Wales in Origin Game I, whether Ricky Stuart’s Eels can make the top eight this year or whether the Storm has developed any weakness since they’ve been away (the answer is no by the way!). Rugby league is still such a huge part of their lives – and it’s responsible for a huge amount of enjoyment during what is otherwise a pretty tough existence in an unbelievably tough environment. The first ANZACS did not have Facebook, but odds on they spent hours in the trenches talking about, thinking about and being inspired by sport.
So paradoxically, just as our masterful internationals were inspired by the ANZAC spirit last week, the feats on the field during our great competition also inspire our diggers, especially those serving in conflicts overseas. Just as their war is brought into our lounge rooms, our NRL season is brought into their mess tents and recreational halls – a superbly intimate and real link with home.
It’s not only Thursday that will provide the epic entertainment this round – who can’t wait for the Panthers to take on the Eels, two teams struggling to find their feet this year – but showing enough grit and promise to keep fans optimistic for season 2013. I can’t wait to see Terry Campese play his second game back for the Raiders against the Cowboys after almost two years out injured. There are so many good contests this weekend – and with the added dimension of the ANZAC theme it just gives them that little bit more meaning!
Rugby league might be ‘just’ a game compared to combat, albeit the greatest game of all, but we shall see some mighty attack and defence in this week’s fantastic round. As we watch and enjoy it we will be aware that the day-to-day actions of our defence personnel are guaranteeing with their actions the freedom, justice and mateship that underpin our Aussie values.
Lest we forget our fallen diggers – we will remember you.
To all our serving diggers, wherever you are, I hope that the team that inspires you has a win this week, and I assure you that whichever team that happens to be, you also inspire them!