The people of Hughenden didn’t know what to make of it.
As they went about their normal Sunday routine recently, in rolled three vehicles, one badged National Rugby League, while another had a Queensland Rugby League number plate.
The last one was a bright Maroon Winnebago emblazoned with QRL and NRL symbols and locals all stopped and looked to see who hopped out of the cars.
“It was a bit strange arriving into Hughenden and the locals at the pub all looking to see who we were,” recalls Michael Inman, referee development officer for North Queensland.
While the start of the Battlefields to Footy Fields GO West camp felt strange, all the participants quickly hoped into stride.
Battlefields to Footy Fields is an NRL program partnered with Veteran Sport Australia to deliver an opportunity for veterans to integrate into their communities through rugby league officiating.
However, the GO West camp was to take the program to the next step, by going on a one week excursion across the Flinders Highway, with a healthy course of referee education, both theory and practical during the day, with officiating Community LeagueTag gala evenings across five different communities.
Joining Inman on this journey, was key personnel from both Queensland Rugby League and the National Rugby League, all keen on helping the Battlefields to Footy Fields participants find their feet in both officiating and as part of the community.
Planning for the camp had seen Inman travel the length of the Flinders Highway three times over short period of time.
In that time, local stakeholders in the communities of Hughenden, Richmond, Julia Creek, Cloncurry and Mount Isa all warmed to the idea of having veterans coming to their community to learn the art of officiating.
RSL’s in Hughenden and Julia Creek opened their doors and were quick to ensure their members were aware of what was about to happen around town.
With all the planning complete, the group arrived at their meeting point in Townsville for the five hour drive west to Hughenden.
The group consisting of six Army, one Air Force and two civilians headed off, with what was later described as a “sceptical” expectation of the camp.
The group had all the same personal goal from the camp, to learn and improve their knowledge of rugby league officiating while becoming involved, and gaining confidence to work with the local community.
The first session at the Hughenden RSL Hall, set the tone for the rest of the week, which saw the group come together quickly, with participants gaining an appreciation of the expectations, which was centred on their own goals.
“Having the knowledge that we were not going to be judged on how we were as officiators certainly took away most of the hesitation quickly, while also knowing that we had two experienced referee development officers there on hand to coach, mentor and generally help us ensured that I was comfortable with the camp from the get-go,” Iain Taylor said.
The speed of the transition was important. Later that afternoon, members of the Hughenden community arrived to learn more about officiating, with Battlefields to Footy Fields participants merging with them in their educational journey.
“Joining with them meant so much for the people in Hughenden, to understand the program, and for us to welcome them into our community,” Mid West Rugby League secretary Vicki Horton said.
Monday morning was especially special for the group as they were invited to the local state school to run a League Tag training session.
“The men all responded by this and were happy to be involved playing and helping to ensure that the kids had the best opportunity to play the game,” said Tim Bailey, the NRL referee development officer from southern New South Wales, who was invited by Inman to be part of the camp because of his military background.
The first LeagueTag community night
As Battlefields to Footy Fields participants walked around Hughenden, they gained a sense that something was building towards the evenings community event.
“Generally we were going to be happy if 30 or so people turned up to give it a try,” Inman said.
“To have over 60 people attempt to play LeagueTag on night one showed that the local community embraced the concept.
"They (the community) went at great lengths to ensure that the guys were welcomed as part of the town”.
The next stops
Over the next few days towns of Richmond, Julia Creek and Cloncurry mirrored the success of the first evening in Hughenden.
“Mick (Inman) said at the opening address that rugby league is a vehicle, it isn’t until you come to these communities that you understand what that statement really means,” the initial participant of the Battlefields to Footy Fields program in North Queensland Jason Dale said.
“Not only can you develop your own journey, you can join in the journey of many across the whole of game.
"Being here has given me skills to become an officiator, but also grow back into the community."
The end game
When the group arrived into Mt Isa, word had spread quickly what was coming to town, with local media reporting on our activities.
The final two days of the program in the “Isa” followed a similar theme of education and community LeagueTag gala. However, a surprise awaited the participants, as they were invited to two different social events on the last day.
The first was an invitation from the Mount Isa Racing Club to attend their last race meeting for year.
“That was certainly a surprise to have a different sporting group reach out to myself to ask for the Battlefields to Footy Fields guys come along to the race meeting," Inman said.
"The boys certainly enjoyed the afternoon."
Later that evening, the group were the special guests at the North West Referees presentation night held at the Mt Isa Golf Club – where local officiators mingled with the group and exchanged stories well into the evening.
The wash up
During the week, over 340 people participated in LeagueTag events that the Battlefields to Footy Fields officiators officiated, with 14 different theory and practical lessons delivered about officiating and general well-being.
“The education was delivered in a variety of ways which really helped clarify things better," Dale said.
"The coaches and mentors were fantastic at identifying individual needs and accommodated each individual well.
"The wellbeing aspect has given me tools to view situations in a different light.
"All these things combined has given me the confidence and knowledge to go out and officiate games more effectively."
When Dale was asked about the most rewarding part of the journey, his words were spoken with great enthusiasm.
“Engaging with the community was fantastic, seeing the smiles on the kids faces was very rewarding along with the locals who obviously are passionate about providing and assisting these opportunities to the local children, also to engage with RSL staff at some locations was fantastic from a veterans perspective and also the NRL and QRL staff, they made the tour happen and delivered it very well,” Dale said.
When Iain Taylor was asked if he would endorse the program for fellow Australian Defence Force members to join, his answer was clear.
“The NRL support for this program has impacted on me positively and has also given me a purpose that was not there for a long period of time," Taylor said.
"This program enables veterans to become a part of the community and give back to my local association. I actively encourage former members to look at the program and become involved."