Anzac Day game like nothing else in rugby league

This article was first written for NRL.com.

Just like many other people that proudly call themselves Australian, my family’s story did not begin in this country.

My father was born in the Peloponnese region in Greece and came to Australia by boat in 1964. When he arrived in Australia with my grandparents, they settled in Parramatta and my grandfather remained in that small, fibro cottage until he passed away eight years ago.
My mother has a similar story. She arrived with her sister and my grandparents by boat from Limassol in Cyprus in 1970. My mother’s side of the family moved around a bit more and lived in Leichhardt initially, before moving to Merrylands where my grandparents still live today.

Because my mum and dad were born outside of Australia, I do not have the same connection to Anzac Day that many people in Australia and New Zealand do. Fortunately, none of my family members served in World War I or World War II and I do not have any family members who are serving as part of Australia’s armed forces.

But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t grow up learning what an exceptionally solemn and important day it is.

This year I celebrated Anzac Day a little differently. It has always been on my bucket list to attend a dawn service and to attend the game between the Roosters and St George Illawarra. I did both for the first time this year.

Dragons halfback Ben Hunt and Roosters halfback Cooper Cronk.
Dragons halfback Ben Hunt and Roosters halfback Cooper Cronk.┬ęGrant Trouville/NRL Photos

My day began at 4am in Parramatta, where I, along with several hundred other Australians paused to honour our service men and women, past and present, for their commitment and sacrifice for our country.

It’s hard to put into words how much meaning this ceremony clearly held for the people gathered in the darkness.

In a world where we all profess to be so busy and where we are connected to technology almost 24 hours a day, for that hour on Wednesday morning I saw no mobile phones. I saw no rush and no sense of busyness. Instead I saw a rich community of people coming together to remember something truly important.

Then onto the game at Allianz Stadium where I was reminded of how rugby league is so good at commemorating events.

If you talk to people in the wider community, some of them don’t have the best opinion of rugby league fans. We can be called uncouth, bogan and rowdy.

But I saw none of that on Wednesday. What I did see was a record crowd of 41,142 people gathered together to attend one of the most significant days on the Telstra Premiership calendar.

The pre-match ceremony lasted for about 10 minutes and a couple of things really stood out to me.

I have never quite heard a rugby league roar like that one which greeted the Dragons and Roosters as they took the field.

The period of silence was eerily beautiful. During the oath, the playing of the Last Post and the moment’s silence, I heard just that. Silence. The only noise which pierced that silence was an occasional baby crying.

But then, came the national anthems which were both belted out with gusto from the crowd.

This ceremony was significant for me, so I can only imagine how much it meant for those with a greater connection to Australia’s defence forces. What an occasion for our players to experience as well.

I can’t tell you too much about the game on Wednesday between the Roosters and the Dragons, because the result wasn’t important. Attending that game was about far more than footy for me.

There was some great attacking football, Tariq Sims potentially played himself into Holden State of Origin selection and there was some controversy about a Nene Macdonald try late in the game.

We are coming to a period in Australian history where there are fewer men and women who served in the World Wars to participate in Anzac Day. So this game is also a wonderful opportunity for youngsters to be exposed to the importance and meaning of a day so close to the heart of Australia through the game they love so much.

It may have been my first Anzac Day game, but it certainly won’t be my last.

And while it is a day where we can pause to reflect and be grateful for tremendous sacrifice, it also happens to be my grandfather’s birthday. His story is also one of sacrifice, but just in a different way. When he was a young man he left his family and the nation he loved so much to come to a new country where he had very little, not even the language, so his daughters could have a better life. That to me is also a sacrifice worth reflecting on.

But most importantly, to all our past servicemen and servicewomen who gave their today so we could have a brighter tomorrow: thank you for your tremendous sacrifice.

I hope you all had a memorable Anzac Day and that plenty of you have the opportunity to pause and reflect as you watch your teams battle it out for the remainder of Anzac Round.

Thank you to our game for recognising the significance of this day and celebrating it with such conviction.

Lest we forget.