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A perfect match for Invictus Australia and the NRL

It was a wet but very welcome return to refereeing rugby league this season for army veteran Troy Burgess

“It was bucketing down with rain,” says Troy of his first game back. “I pretty much needed flippers to be refereeing. I was ankle deep in water.”

Muddy fields weren’t the only challenge on picking up the whistle again for the delayed first game of the season.

“The first week back was a bit of a shock to the body,” says Troy. “10 to 15 minutes in I was knackered!”

Photo Credit: ABC Sunshine Coast, Kylie Bartholomew

A veteran in charge

Troy left the Australian Army more than a decade ago. He was with 1RAR infantry battalion in Townsville for seven years and served in the Solomon Islands in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2007. He lives on the Sunshine Coast with his wife, son and daughter.

Troy’s a member of his local rugby league refereeing association and was introduced to refereeing as part of the NRL’s innovative ‘Battlefields to Footy Fields’ program. He can’t speak highly enough of the program, the NRL’s refereeing team and what it’s done for him.

“I would never have done refereeing if it wasn’t for the program,” says Troy. “I’d been struggling with mental health for a while. They’d started Battlefields to Footy Fields. One of my uncles is a referee and he mentioned it to me. I wasn’t really that keen. Just dealing with people… I wasn’t really that comfortable with it at the time. He sort of talked me into it so I ended up doing it.”

Despite the challenges of being a new referee, Troy stuck with it and credits the program with giving him confidence and in helping him fit back into community life.

“I think that was probably half the reason why I was having half my problems – because I just couldn’t find where I fitted into society. That was just taking its toll on me. I’d been in and out of hospital a few times. Refereeing gets you out of the house and active.”

“I wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve been doing in the last 18 months if it wasn’t for the NRL.”

Photo Credit: ABC Sunshine Coast, Kylie Bartholomew

An outstanding success

Tony Archer is General Manager – Referee Development and Pathways at the NRL and says that the success of the Battlefields to Footy Fields program has been outstanding.

“The social and health advantages for our veterans is clear from Troy and the others in the program,” says Tony. “Importantly, the presence of our veterans is mutually beneficial to our whole refereeing community. Their experiences and resilience resonate closely with rugby league officiating. Their presence has had a positive impact on our young referees, male and female alike.

“We look forward to expanding the program in the coming years.” 

Michael Hartung is the CEO of Invictus Australia (previously Veteran Sport Australia) and is proud to be in partnership with the NRL on the program.

Battlefields to Footy Fields is a hugely successful program that’s having a big impact,” says Michael. “The team at the NRL support our veteran community every step of the way. We’re excited to see what the future holds for the program and encourage veterans from around the country to reach out and get involved.”

Photo Credit: The National Rugby League

A tight-knit community

An important part of the program is involving veterans with their local refereeing association, and Troy has big wraps for his Sunshine Coast & Gympie Rugby League Referees Association.

“They were very accommodating, especially when you start off,” says Troy. “It’s pretty nerve-wracking refereeing for the first time.”

There’s also a closeness about rugby league refereeing associations that can be similar to the army.

“The associations are all very tight-knit and look out for each other. I think it helps blokes who have been in the army and been in that environment where you belonged to something and everyone looked out for each other,” says Troy.

Photo Credit: The National Rugby League

Refereeing on the big stage

Getting to work with Tony Archer, Steve Clark and the team at the NRL is a huge benefit of being involved with the Battlefields to Footy Fields program – and fun.

“The energy and positivity that they give off is contagious,” says Troy. “You hang around with those kinds of people you start feeling that way yourself.”

A highlight of his time refereeing to date was being a touch judge for the Anzac Day curtain raiser at AAMI Park last year, an opportunity Troy got through his involvement with the program.

“Sitting in the stadium watching footy’s alright, but being down on the field officiating…” says Troy. “The stadium was getting pretty packed by the start of the second half, so just having all those people in there and running up and down the field, it was pretty intimidating!”

Photo Credit: The National Rugby League

Up for the challenge

The success of the Battlefields to Footy Fields program has highlighted that veterans are uniquely suited to the demands of refereeing.

“There’s probably a bit of that similar chaos on the footy field,” says Troy. “You’ve got to make decisions quickly and accurately to keep the play going, and obviously make the right decisions so everyone’s happy. There are 26 people running around all screaming at each other – it’s a bit chaotic and gets the adrenaline up and going.”

And the difference between refereeing compared to lacing up the boots as a player?

“It’s very different, refereeing and playing,” says Troy. “There are a lot more intricacies to the game than what you see from watching on TV. It’s been a massive learning curve!”