Roosters centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall says April 25 is an inspirational day on the NRL calendar.

Why Anzac Day resonates across the NRL

There is no comparison between rugby league and war.

The greatest game of all may be one of inches, but war remains a matter of life and death. And each Anzac Day the squabbles over obstructions, contracts and whether Beau Ryan is actually funny are put firmly in their place. Threads in the game's rich fabric, but simply that: just part of a game.

There is no comparison between the fields of battle and rugby league, but there is a connection.
 
A link that rugby league is proud to champion every April 25th, though not for the sake of a back-page splash, putting bums on seats or distracting from the latest episode in the most watched soap opera in the land.

The traditional Anzac Day clash is simply the game's best way of paying tribute to sacrifices made, showing respect to those who gave so much.

Men such as Bill Collier, the last surviving member of St George's inaugural 1941 premiership team, and Ferris Ashton, the legendary Roosters captain and coach who passed away last February. Men who both swapped footy jumpers for fatigues during World War II, men for whom one of rugby league's oldest rivalries is set aside when presented to the Anzac Day crowd.


"This is the one day every year (Ferris) would wait for," says his son Greg, who continues his family's long association with the commemorative Dragons-Roosters match that enters its 13th year.

"He was that proud to fight for his country and fight for his country in football too. He couldn't wait for Anzac Day to march with his few mates that are left, have a couple of beers and come here and go round with Bill.

"Getting cheered by all these St George [Illawarra] supporters, who'd have thought?"

Arguably no team embodies the Anzac spirit more than the Roosters, whose current line-up features seven Kiwi internationals, and while centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall said he would like to see the New Zealand national anthem performed alongside Advance Australia Fair as it is in the other traditional Anzac Day clash between the Storm and the Warriors, the Roosters three-quarter admitted there was no shortage of inspiration ahead of the clash.

"You don’t need any extra motivation that's for sure," said Kenny-Dowall. "You feel honoured to be a part of such a prestigious occasion.

"You listen to the Last Post and it's pretty emotional.
 
"It gives me pins and needles every time and you look forward to it every year."

Get your ticket to NRL Round 8

Each year the Roosters and Dragons invite a member of the armed forces to address the squads prior to the match, and to hear Kenny-Dowall talk about a previous meeting with Victorian Cross recipient Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith underlines the similarities, and just as quickly, the stark differences between the game and the realities of war.

"There was a chain of events and he took on the opposition by himself," begins Kenny-Dowall, who could easily be describing the actions of a winger or fullback who cleans up a kick with the defence bearing down on him.

However the stakes are soon raised as the Kiwi centre continues to detail Roberts-Smith's courage under fire during a helicopter assault while on duty in Afghanistan four years ago.

"He took on the opposition by himself.

"He had two injured SAS soldiers with him and he got them to safety and then took out the enemy.

"It was an act of courage and determination and serious mental toughness that every person should be proud of and look up to.

"You know it's nothing compared to a game of rugby league to hear some of the stories and the sacrifices.

"Every time they go out there they're putting their life on the line and it's a pretty special thing to be a part of."

It's stories like that of Roberts-Smith, and men like Collier and Ashton, that make blokes like Kenny-Dowall proud to play the game, and why rugby league is humbled each Anzac Day when it pays its small tribute to those who gave so much.