Aussie defence force team relishes Anzac billing
With the Australian Combined Armed Services to take on the NZ Defence Forces in the lead up to Friday's Trans-Tasman Test, the captain of the Aussie side says the chance to take part in the NRL's annual Anzac commemorations makes the occasion extra special.
Corporal Mitch Knowles has been in the Australian Air Force for eight years and also represented the Australian Combined Armed Services in their successful 2013 Defence Force World Cup campaign.
"Normally any sort of combined Australian services game is pretty special but when you pair it with the 100th anniversary of the Anzacs [landing at Gallipoli] it just has all that much more meaning," he said.
"Especially playing against New Zealand defence force, it's not all that often we get to play against those boys. Just both of us taking the field at the same time is pretty special."
Knowles is currently serving at Williamtown in NSW but it was his deployment to the Middle East in 2012 and 2013 for seven months at Al Minhad airbase in Dubai as a visa and immigration co-ordinator where the gravity of serving his country really hit him.
That time in particular helped him appreciate the bonds that you form in the armed services, which he says is not dissimilar to the way you bond with your teammates through sport.
"Deploying to the Middle East for the first time was probably the biggest moment where it all really hit home," he said.
"Once you jump on that plane to head overseas you're kind of segregated from your family and friends and chucked in with a whole bunch of people who are in the same boat so you quickly form relationships and friendships.
"I guess it all really hits you when you jump off that A340 in the middle of the desert and it's 45 degrees – it really hits home that this is what you've spent your entire career for leading up to this moment.
"All the training, all the runs in the morning, all the fitness tests, all the weapons handling, stuff like that – when you step off that plane that's when it becomes a reality.
"For myself, just probably that first deployment was something I'll never forget. You're proud and honoured to serve your country and that kind of thing. We see it as an honour to get a deployment because it's not offered to everybody."
Knowles said he sees similarities between playing footy and being in the defence force.
"Mateship and comradeship, a bit of courage as well. It's always special playing a big game like this with a couple of your mates," he said.
He said the notorious rivalry that exists between the Army, Navy and Air Force even takes a back seat when the players are in camp.
"A couple of us boys have been playing footy for the Air Force now for a couple of years and we've built strong friendships, but when we get thrown into something like this it's that little bit more special.
"It always means that little bit more if you've got your mate outside you to defend, you're going to work just that little bit harder [due to] that friendship and comradeship.
"There's always a bit of banter going backwards and forwards between the boys but once we come into these kind of camps we try to forget the whole Navy/Army/Air Force thing and come under the one Australian combined services team.
"Once we pull on the green and gold jumper we kind of forget which service we're from, we're just playing for the Aussie team."
He said eight of the players who will feature in the match on Friday were in the side that toured the UK in 2013 and remain close.
"We might not speak all the time when we're away from these kinds of things but once we get into camp it's good to catch up with them and see what they've been up to for the last couple of months that we haven't had a chance to talk."
Knowles also believes Australia's appreciation for the sacrifices of the Diggers 100 years ago and for the armed forces in general is, if anything, getting stronger.
On Anzac Day this year Knowles attended a dawn service at Amberley RAAF Base and said the number of people there was "pretty astonishing".
"We couldn't even see where they were laying the wreaths there were that many people and I'm sure it was like that all around the country. I think the public's starting to become a bit more aware of it and the sacrifices that everyone else before us has made so it's good to see," he said.