When Jack de Belin was growing up in Cootamundra, he would visit his grandparents each ANZAC Day to put on his grandfather’s World War II medals before taking part in the ceremonial march down Parker Street.
De Belin will again represent his grandfather, Fred – the Balmain great who flew suicide missions over Germany with the RAAF – in Monday’s annual ANZAC Day clash between the Dragons and Roosters at the SCG.
It is the match the St George Illawarra forward missed the most during the two-and-a-half years he was stood down from the NRL while defending sexual assault charges before returning last May.
Instead, he attended the Dawn Service at Wollongong Cenotaph to honour his grandfather, who initially joined the RAAF as a pilot after playing the 1942 season for the Tigers.
On his way to Europe, Fred de Belin spent time in Canada training to become a ‘bomb aimer’ and he flew 30 bombing missions before returning home after the war to help Balmain to the 1946 premiership.
“We are so lucky. We live in probably the best country in the world, and we owe a lot to all of those people who went and fought for our freedoms,” de Belin said.
“Knowing that my Pop did that, and having so much to do with him as a child was very special.
“Every ANZAC Day I used to do the parade and march down the main street of Cootamundra. It was always a proud day for me because I used to wear my Pop’s medals.
“I would go around to my grandparents’ house and my nan used to put the medals on me and I’d march with the Cubs or Scouts, and I think a couple of times I did it with the school.
“It was a pretty proud moment to put on your Pop’s medals and march knowing that he fought in the war and sacrificed so much for future generations.”
Fred de Belin also played 75 matches for the Tigers and was inducted into the Balmain Hall of Fame in 2006.
He also played 10 interstate matches for NSW and represented Australia in eight Tests, playing alongside the likes of Clive Churchill, Keith Holman and Duncan Hall.
“When I first came to the Dragons, Wayne Bennett told me that his uncle, Eddie Brosnan, who was a big part of his life, played for Australia with my Pop,” de Belin said.
“I think Wayne probably had a bit of a soft spot for me because of that.
“I have never seen any footage of my Pop playing but now that I play footy at a high level it was obviously in my blood through him.
“When I used to go around to Nan and Pop’s there was a Balmain jersey with all the great players and there was an Australian side that he was in.
“I am very proud to know that my Pop played football at the highest level, and he also served his country.”
De Belin said he and his grandfather, who passed away in 2006 aged 85, also shared a love of sport.
“He loved cricket, he loved footy, and I just used to watch sport with him,” de Belin said.
“If there was a Test match on during the school holidays, I would go around to my grandparents’ place at 10am and we would watch the first ball until the last ball.
“I spoke to him a few times about the war, but he wasn’t much of a talker so that was how we used to bond or connect."
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De Belin has played in six previous ANZAC Day games against the Roosters since 2013 and the former NSW Origin forward said he would be thinking of his grandfather as he takes the field on Monday.
“Being out of the game for so long, if there was any game I had missed, it was playing on ANZAC Day,” he said. “It is such a special occasion, and I am pretty lucky that I have been able to play for the Dragons in that game.
“It is the best game of the year other than the finals or State of Origin. There is always a packed crowd and just an unreal atmosphere around the ground.
"I have played in a few ANZAC Day matches now and it is a massive honour so I am very excited to be back playing in it again.”