The cream of Services Rugby League players set off on their bid for glory today (Friday, June 30), as the 24-man UKAFRL squad left Manchester airport bound for Sydney, Australia, and the Defence World Cup - part of the 2017 Festival of World Cups.
The team, led by Head Coach Flt Lt Damian Clayton, finished their four-match warm-up series recently playing the curtain-raiser game to Leeds Rhinos' Betfred Super League clash with Leigh Centurions, against England Universities, and they will be looking to avenge their last-gasp defeat in 2015 at the hands of the year’s tournament hosts Australia.
The UKAFRL side open their World Cup account with a clash against an unknown quantity in Fiji on July 7 at St Mary’s Stadium, followed by the opening ceremony later that day, before facing Australia on July 9 in Cabramatta.
The two sides clashed last two-years ago in a curtain-raiser to State of Origin III game between New South Wales and Queensland at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.
Team manager Major Dave Groce said: "There was a palpable feeling of excitement as the squad waited for the team bus this morning, be it either players discussing the opposition and what the World Cup had in store, or the management team doing final checks on equipment and team supplies and so on.
"For most, the Festival of World Cups is the culmination of a two-year journey which started with the final whistle of the defeat to Australia at the Suncorp Stadium in July 2015.
"For the players who were part of the defeat, it has been a source of inspiration during their on and off pitch training; for the new squad members, it is their chance to forge their own piece of history.
"And for the management, it has been the driving to focus on attention to detail, to ensure everything has been done to set the team for success. The preparation is now over and we are on the road to victory."
The team set off from Manchester Airport
Ben Taylor (centre) captains the side
Head Coach Clayton, who led the team for the 2015 fixture, will be looking for a different outcome this time around, saying:
"The players and management that are taking to the air today are building on the bond and unity created in 2015, there is no room for single Service mindsets here, old attitudes like that have seen people fall by the wayside, here we are one team, all three Services in one shirt, under one banner and with one aim, to bring home the Armed Forces Rugby League World Cup.”
The side, who will be taking time out of their challenging match schedule to visit patients at the Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, Sydney, will be led on the pitch by Royal Navy LAET Ben Taylor, with the vice captain’s armband being worn by Cpl James Hutchinson.
Speaking before the team flew, scrum half SAC(T) Adam Flintham, said: "I am really excited and very proud in knowing that I'll be representing my country and our Services. Last night we picked up our kit at Dale Barracks, Chester, and got the final bits sorted for the flight, the atmosphere is great there is a real buzz, with plenty of banter going around.
"I am now really looking forward to what the next few days bring with the flight and of course once we touch down with my team mates."
The team will finish their matches when they face New Zealand on July 12 at Windsor, before the third and fourth place play off match on July 14, at Wentworthville with the final being held at Pepper Stadium on July 16.