The legacy of the ANZACs holds a hallowed place in the narrative of rugby league in Australia and New Zealand.
April 25, 2021, marks 106 years since the landing of troops, predominantly from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), at Gallipoli Peninsula less than nine months after the beginning of the First World War. An estimated 1,000 ANZAC troops lost their lives fighting Turkish forces that day, while the Department of Veteran Affairs records the number of dead from the campaign, which lasted until January 1916, at 8,709 Australians and 2,721 New Zealanders.
Since 1916 Anzac Day has been celebrated on April 25 to broadly commemorate all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served”. It is a day close to the hearts and inherent to the national identities of both countries – and for rugby league, it is also a solemn day steeped in tradition.
Ted Larkin, an Australian rugby union representative in 1903, sympathised with the rugby league movement and became the NSWRL’s first full-time secretary in 1909 before becoming a member of the Australian parliament in 1913. Recognised as one of the most important and astute administrators of rugby league’s pioneering era, Sergeant Larkin was killed in action on the first day of conflict at Gallipoli; he was one of only two serving members of any Australian parliament to fall in World War I.
New Zealand international Charles Savory, a member of the 1911-12 ‘Australasian’ Kangaroo Tour squad, also died at Gallipoli. A baritone singer and the heavyweight boxing champion of New Zealand when the war broke out, the colourful forward’s legend was preserved for perpetuity when the Charles Savory Medal was struck in 2015, awarded to the man-of-the-match in that season’s ANZAC Test, Manu Vatuvei.
Stan Carpenter, the captain of the Newcastle club that featured in the 1908-09 NSWRL premiership and an Australian representative against New Zealand Maori in 1909, served with distinction at Gallipoli. Pioneering Newtown three-quarter Frank Cheadle, a member of the 1908-09 Kangaroo Tour squad and a representative in five Tests, saw action at Gallipoli and the Western Front, before dying near Armentieres, France, in 1916.
Scores of prominent rugby league players enlisted and served overseas during World War I and II; many were killed or wounded. Eastern Suburbs winger Johnno Stuntz, who scored four tries in the first-ever premiership match against Newtown in 1908 and also represented Australia against the touring Maori the following season, served in the AIF and was killed by machine-gun fire at Bullecourt, France, in 1917. After playing two Tests for Australia against England in 1914, Easts centre Bob Tidyman was reported missing in action after heavy fighting near Boulogne in 1916.
Brisbane fullback and 1908 Test rep Edward Baird, and Newtown and NSW centre Herbert ‘Nutsy’ Bolt also perished while serving in WWI.
Former St George and South Sydney centre Jack Lennox, Balmain’s 1939 premiership lock Jack Redman, and Newtown fullback/winger Hylton ‘Heck’ Davies died serving in the Second World War.
Foundation St George centre and 1921-22 Kangaroo tourist George Carstairs, a WWI veteran, served again in World War II and endured the unsettling experience of reading his own erroneous obituary published in a newspaper in 1940; ‘Bluey’ Carstaris passed away in 1966, aged 66. Future Test stars Jack Rayner and Clem Kennedy, and Easts’ 1945 premiership hero Dick Dunn, were among those who also served in WWII and made it home safely.
The vast majority of rugby league identities and supporters have at least some family connection to the armed services, rendering Anzac Day a particularly poignant one for the code – and an occasion it has honoured with respect.
The NSWRL premiership first staged games on Anzac Day in 1927, when a full round of four matches were played on a Monday at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Earl Park, Wentworth Park and North Sydney Oval. First grade matches were played annually on April 25 thereafter – even if it fell on a weekday. Rugby league was played on an Anzac Day Sunday for the first time in 1965, while often a full midweek round would be played on Anzac Day, with all clubs backing up to play three matches in the space of eight days.
The Canterbury-South Sydney clash at the SCG in 1986 produced one of the most memorable, and infamous, incidents ever witnessed in an Anzac Day game. Folklore has it that the bugler was still finding his seat after playing ‘The Last Post’ when Bulldogs enforcer Peter Kelly was sent off for ironing out Rabbitohs winger Ross Harrington in the first tackle of the match. Despite playing all but a dozen seconds one man short, the two-time premiers surged to a convincing 26-2 victory over high-flying Souths in front of a 25,178-strong crowd.
The annual City Origin v Country Origin fixture was intermittently held on Anzac Day during the 1990s, before a higher-profile representative contest took up residence on the hallowed occasion in 1997, when the inaugural ‘ANZAC Test’ was staged between New Zealand and Super League Australia.
The use of ‘ANZAC’ was controversial, firstly for the connotations of comparing professional sportsmen to soldiers, but also because of Super League’s perceived casting aside of tradition in general during its bitter war with the ARL that split the game in two. But the rebel organisation donated a substantial sum of money to the RSL, while ex-serviceman and long-serving President of the Victorian RSL Bruce Ruxton, AM, OBE, appeared in television advertisements promoting the Test, which Super League Australia won 34-22 at the Sydney Football Stadium.
The Protection of Word “Anzac” Regulations (under the War Precautions Act Repeal Act 1920) stipulates that permission must be sought from the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to use the word for commercial purposes. That permission was only granted from 1997-99, but the match continued to be regularly referred to colloquially as the ‘ANZAC Test’ rather than the ‘official’ sponsored names. The winner of the Test was awarded the Anzac Trophy – which depicted an Australian slouch hat and New Zealand lemon squeezer hat – from 1997-99.
Except for the 2001-03 seasons, when it was held later in the season, the Test between the trans-Tasman rivals has been played on a Friday night within two weeks of Anzac Day every year – but only once on April 25 (in 2005) since the maiden clash.
After the code came back together under the NRL banner, New Zealand stunned the first full-strength Australian Test side in four years in the 1998 ANZAC Test, a 22-16 boilover at North Harbour Stadium. But that triumph remained the Kiwis’ only success in the fixture for 17 years.
In 2002, Sydney Roosters and St George Illawarra Dragons began a tradition of squaring off at the SFS on April 25 every year.
Playing for the Anzac Day Cup, the high-profile clubs draw a bumper crowd every year – topping 40,000 in 2012-13 and ’17-18 – and have produced some of the NRL era’s most memorable regular season encounters.
The Roosters won the inaugural match in a thriller, 24-20, while the Dragons triumphed by the same scoreline in 2003.
Tricolours skipper Brad Fittler’s brilliant 50-metre individual try to seal their epic 11-8 victory in 2004 will live long in the memory. Saints halfback Mathew Head’s kick-and-chase to lay on a try for Matt Cooper in the dying minutes before nailing the sideline conversion to snatch a 26-24 win in 2005 was equally unforgettable.
Two tries in the final five minutes – including the match-winner to Ben Creagh with 53 seconds left – clinched a spectacular 28-24 result for the Dragons in 2012.
The pre-match playing of ‘The Last Post’, and the presence of veterans and current servicemen and women, creates a unique and stirring build-up.
Melbourne Storm and New Zealand Warriors began playing annually in the Victorian capital on Anzac Day in 2009, a match that has been just as fiercely-contested and passionately-supported as the Roosters-Dragons fixture.
The first clash finished in a shock golden point draw, while the Warriors – who enjoy overwhelming crowd support at Melbourne’s AAMI Park – pulled off upset wins in 2011 and ’14. The clubs have drawn over 20,000 fans in each of the eight Anzac Day games from 2010.
The NRL commemorated the centenary of the ANZAC forces’ Gallipoli landings with an unprecedented football marathon in 2015, staging five Round 8 matches back-to-back over 10 hours in five cities.
The Warriors kicked off proceedings against Gold Coast in Auckland, with the Titans prevailing 32-28 in a thriller. Newcastle was edged out 26-24 on its home track by North Queensland in the second clash.
The traditional Roosters-Dragons encounter witnessed wild weather at Allianz Stadium, forcing the teams from the field midway through the first half amid extraordinary scenes; when they returned, the Saints grinded out a stirring 14-12 triumph.
The extravaganza continued with bottom-placed Manly toppled the ladder-leading Storm 12-10 in Melbourne, and finished with Brisbane holding off Parramatta 28-16 at Suncorp Stadium.
The NRL was accused of attempting to commercialise Anzac Day in some quarters, but the five-city festival of football honoured the occasion in tasteful fashion and the day was an unequivocal success.
The fact all five matches were entertaining, close contests was a bonus, but most importantly, the spirit of Anzac Day was paid its due respect. The Australian and New Zealand national anthems were both played at all matches for the first time, while ‘The Last Post’ was poignant and goosebump-inducing at every fixture.
The unveiling of the cringe-worthy Guy Sebastian, Lee Kernaghan and Jessica Mauboy collaboration ‘Spirit of the Anzacs’ at the start of the Tigers-Bulldogs clash on the Friday night was a dubious way to kick off the weekend, but the Saturday-long events were all class.
Australia and New Zealand came together in Brisbane a week later, with permission granted for the match to be officially recognised as the ANZAC Test again for the first time in 16 years. The Kiwis broke a 17-year mid-season Test drought against the Kangaroos with an emphatic 26-12 victory after the match had been postponed two days by torrential rain.
The inaugural Charles Savory Medal for man-of-the-match was awarded to the Kiwis’ two-try hero Manu Vatuvei in what would be the legendary winger’s final Test appearance in the black-and-white jumper.
Savory was a fitting choice for the honour to be named after, representing both New Zealand and Australia before making the ultimate sacrifice at Gallipoli. Kangaroos forwards Paul Gallen (2016) and Matt Gillett (2017) claimed the honour in subsequent seasons.
The NRL and NZRL donated $1 from every ticket sold for the ANZAC Test to the RSL in Australia and the RSA in New Zealand. Australia’s self-serving decision to give international football “a new priority” meant the ANZAC Test was scrapped in 2018.
But the Roosters-Dragons and Storm-Warriors fixtures – with the latter returning to the schedule in 2016 – continue to entrench Anzac Day’s cherished place on the rugby league calendar. In 2019 the Australian Defence Force team play their New Zealand counterparts in a curtain-raiser to the Storm-Warriors clash at AAMI Park.
Beneath the various camouflaged jerseys and armed services-themed strips, rugby league’s heart beats fervently with ANZAC pride and spirit. The game is ingrained in the tradition of Anzac Day as much as dawn service, beers at the RSL and two-up. But the results on Anzac Day take a backseat to remembering and commemorating those who have fought so bravely and gave their lives in the name of their country.
Lest we forget.