Anzac Day football: Australia's perfect living tribute

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Anzac tradition more important than ever (1:26)

Brett Kimmorley says that the Anzac Day games are one of the most important and special days on the NRL calendar. (1:26)

"You cannot compare sport and war, however what you can compare is the passion and dedication that are required in both. While war serves a higher purpose the efforts, dedication and sacrifice of sports-people is to be admired - which is not to be confused with how we should honour our veterans past and present." - Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG

As another Anzac Day approaches, thousands of people around the country, and indeed across the world, are preparing for commemorative dawn services and marches. By the afternoon of April 25, however, many Australian sports fans will have turned their focus to the now traditional fixtures in both the AFL and NRL.

If the morning commemorations are rightfully solemn, the mood for the latter part of Anzac Day is often rather less so. It's perhaps for this reason that the appropriateness of playing sporting matches on Anzac Day has been questioned many times over the years, along with a healthy dose of cynicism over the commercialisation of a national day of remembrance.

While it has taken a lengthy period of trial and error, it seems in recent times the right balance has finally been found.

Swans legend Jude Bolton would love to have participated in an Anzac Day clash as a player, insisting the significance of the occasion is definitely not lost on those who take to the field.

"It has been emphasised since Kevin Sheedy first conjured up the now iconic game that this should be a fitting way the football community can commemorate those who selflessly put themselves at risk and gave their lives for our country," says Bolton.

The fans too, he observed, have a respectful reverence for the gravitas of the event.

"To be there amongst the stillness and silence of 90,000 plus people, to not even hear the shuffling of feet, it's just spine-tingling." he says.

The Collingwood-Essendon match may be the most attended sporting event on the day, but the NRL, too, has adopted a solid approach to Anzac Day football, featuring the Dragons-Roosters and the Storm-Warriors -- the latter the biggest home game of the year for Melbourne.

No matter how many times he competes in this clash, Storm halfback Cooper Cronk says it's always special.

"It's an absolute honour to play on Anzac Day", Cronk tells ESPN. "There is so much emotion surrounding this game and it is always played in the right spirit out of respect for the many men and women both past and present who have served to protect our country."

Some 102 years have passed since the first Australian and New Zealand soldiers set foot on the Gallipoli peninsula, and while the official commemorations are (and must remain) solemn and reflective they contain the important words, Lest we forget. One wonders whether the farmers, teachers, labourers and the like who were among the first ANZACs, might agree that a spirited clash in the sporting arena, which remembers the sacrifice of their brothers in arms, is exactly the right way to spend the afternoon.

Bolton's formula for balance is simple.

"As long as it is always displaying the reverence and respect for all of our service men and women. A dawn service, through to Two-Up at a pub or RSL to a sporting match. It's very Australian."

Ben Roberts-Smith, recipient of Australia's highest military honour the Victoria Cross and also the Medal of Gallantry for service during tours in Afghanistan, agrees it's part of the national culture.

"I believe that while sport is obviously a commercial enterprise nowadays, a game of football or rugby or cricket is the perfect way to celebrate our nation's military. Don't forget they even played cricket outside the trenches at Gallipoli and I'm pretty sure they kicked a footy around as well.

"In the end, sport is an intrinsic part of being Aussie, having sporting matches dedicated to our military on such an important national day is fine with me and I'd like to think the players who are involved play that little bit harder out of respect."