• AFL match between the Magpies and the Bombers at Melbourne Cricket Ground in Melbourne (2016) (Getty Images AsiaPac)Source: Getty Images AsiaPac
Collingwood midfielder Travis Varcoe says playing in the Anzac Day AFL match against Essendon is a humbling experience, and the envy of other players in the league.
By
Will Davies

25 Apr 2017 - 11:41 AM  UPDATED 25 Apr 2017 - 11:44 AM

The Anzac Day AFL match between Collingwood and Essendon is the biggest fixture during the league’s regular season.

It allows a hundred thousand fans at the MCG, and more than a million more around the country, to show their respects for Australia’s servicemen and women, via the vehicle of Australian rules football.

It’s an occasion comparable with few in world sport and one that former Geelong, now Collingwood player Travis Varcoe is humbled to take part in.

“It’s a surreal feeling, actually. Nothing like I’ve experienced before and sort of two years ago when I first ran out I didn’t really know what to expect,” Varcoe said.

“Playing at a different club, you sort of envy Collingwood and Essendon to play on this day and to be a part of it, a massive day for the country.”

“Playing at a different club, you sort of envy Collingwood and Essendon to play on this day and to be a part of it, a massive day for the country.”

Proud Indigenous man, Varcoe is one of the most accomplished players in the AFL, having won two league premierships in eight seasons with Geelong, before a trade to Collingwood ahead of the 2015 season.

He says it’s impossible to put into words the reflections he has about the sacrifices made during the first world war, including by the more than 1000 Aboriginal Australians who served in Europe, when he stands in silence, side by side with his teammates on Anzac Day at the MCG.

“It’s something that is just hard to explain. I don’t know about anyone else, but you sort of, I don’t think you ever imagine or come close to imagining what it would have been like for people to fight for this country and do what they did – it’s unreal,” Varcoe said.

“It’s hard to put it into words and I’m probably not doing it any justice trying to find the right words. In footy, we have sort of similar values but theirs are on a larger scale – some might not come home, some come home. We’re going out to do battle but not to that Nth degree.

“I can’t really picture or imagine what would have been running through their minds. Like I said, I’m probably not doing it any justice.”

Garth O’Connell is the Australian War Memorial’s assistant curator, military heraldry and technology.

He says the more than 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women who fought in the first world war, were deployed from Gallipoli, along to the Western Front, as well as in the fight in Palestine with the Light Horse.

While their service and sacrifice have often been overlooked, O’Connell says there has been a positive shift.

“In the past, our veterans were marginalised, not just because of their skin, but also of course their connection to country,” he said.

“But today, the last 15-20 years, there’s been a massive cultural change in the positive direction, by the defence force, the federal government, the RSLs.

“A lot of them have realised: ‘look, we didn’t give you guys enough respect back in the day’.

“And that’s why, for example, this year the ACT RSL is having, for the very first time, the actual national parade on Anzac Day, led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans’ families.

“Normally the RSL rule is you have to be a veteran or serving member, or exiting member to actually march. But they’ve actually allowed our community to have families come along as well and march in honour and in respect of previous generations who didn’t march or couldn’t march.”

“The stories of service and sacrifice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander men and women isn’t just something for our own part of the Australian community to be proud of, but something all parts of our community should be proud of - that the fact our men and women joined up, against, in many cases, government laws restricting their service”

“The stories of service and sacrifice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander men and women isn’t just something for our own part of the Australian community to be proud of, but something all parts of our community should be proud of - that the fact our men and women joined up, against, in many cases, government laws restricting their service,” O’Connell said.

“But despite that, they still got their way through, at least 1000 did in the first world war, and a couple of thousand that we know of in the second world war as well joined up, against official government restriction on their service and they still wanted to fight for their country, for their community and for the human and equal rights.”

The match between Essendon and Collingwood at the MCG on April 25 will be Varcoe’s third Anzac Day clash.

The 29-year-old said he remains in awe of those who sacrificed so much and served their country in the first world war and would relish the opportunity to honour them in some small way on Tuesday.

“I can’t really speak on their behalf because I haven’t really been in that situation, but I am pretty grateful to play in the game to celebrate and for the country to reflect on.

“I’m pretty lucky to be in a position to play on such a special day and celebrate in that regard, doing what we do. And it’s great to see everyone get behind it and get out to the game.

“And obviously to our guys in uniform, it’s something that’s unreal. I haven’t come across anything, game-wise, that comes close to that and it’s something that I hold pretty dear.”

The Australian War Memorial currently has an exhibition called ‘For Country, For Nation', an exhibition about Aboriginal, Torres Strait and South Pacific Islanders who have served for the Australian Forces since Federation in 1901.

For Country, For Nation is on show at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, but is likely to tour the country after September.