Veterans from the Australian defence forces will referee the Storm v Warriors curtain raiser between Australian and New Zealand defence force sides on Anzac Day as part of the NRL's 'Battlefield to Footy Fields' initiative.
The program, in partnership with Veteran Sport Australia, aims to help veterans transition from active duty back into everyday society at a time when many can feel a bit lost and is modelled on the successful 'Battlefield to Ball Park' program that runs in the US.
They idea came about when Steve Clark, the NRL's referee development programs lead and an experienced former NRL referee, was in the US last year with Robert Finch, the NRL's senior manager of pathways, education and development for officiating.
Veterans who choose to join the program undertake an officiating qualification before moving into refereeing at the local level with access to mentoring.
Two graduates of the program, Jake White and Troy Burgess, will referee the AAMI Park curtain-raiser on Anzac Day. On Wednesday they got to train with the elite NRL refereeing squad at Victoria Barracks and visit the Hyde Park War Memorial before flying to Melbourne on Thursday for the game.
Four months on from the program launching, the Anzac Day commemorations were a natural fit for some of the first veterans who completed the program to take part.
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Clark told NRL.com that presenting at a recent series of ADF transition seminars in Sydney, Melbourne and Darwin had netted 49 expressions of interest with Townsville, Brisbane, Perth, Wagga and Townsville seminars coming up.
"The way it's going we're looking like getting quite a few referees out of it but it's not about solving our recruitment issues," Clark said.
"It's a good community reach program. It's about giving defence force veterans the chance to re-engage with the community through sport.
"It's getting a great deal of interest in defence circles and the amount of interest will only grow significantly."
Clark said Burgess's uncle, who is involved in rugby league in Perth, contacted the NRL once he heard about the program to recommend Burgess as a candidate because he was feeling lost after leaving the military.
"The feedback we've had since he's been here is he's just a completely changed guy," Clark said.
"He's enjoying life and said he never saw himself being involved in refereeing but he absolutely loves it, it's given him a new direction and some structure."
Clark said it brings the veterans back to an environment where they can be part of a team, not dissimilar to in the military.
"The skills they pick up in the military - thinking quickly on your feet, being under pressure, making good decisions, being a leader and a good communicator really fits with officiating," he said.
"Obviously it's a good recruitment tool but it's just a good feeling. We're always trying to boost the profile of refereeing and for us as a sport it's a real feel good story for officiating and for the game itself so that's where it came from."
Clark said the aspiring referees relished the chance to train with the top NRL refereeing squad on Wednesday.
"They love the fact they're getting the opportunity to mix with the elite in the league and in Troy's case, a former military member, it's given him an avenue to being involved in the sport," he said.
"Since we've had him we’ve taken him to Dubbo for a footy carnival, brought him to Sydney to officiate ADF games down here and it's given him a new lease on life.
"He came home from holidays on Tuesday, backed the caravan into his driveway, unpacked his bag, repacked his bag and flew to Sydney the next morning."