From Belmore to Afghanistan

As he stepped onto the tarmac at the military base in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, the temperature gauge read 60 degrees.

It may as well have said 1000, such was the journey Rob Worsley had taken to be joining the Australian Defence Force’s front-line efforts in the Middle East in May 2013.

Four years earlier he was a member of the Bulldogs’ full-time NRL squad having played in the inaugural National Youth Competition in 2008 and come up through the junior ranks in Cronulla as a promising front-rower.

But even after 10 months of intensive training back in Australia in preparation for a seven month assignment with the Royal Australian Air Force, finally setting foot on foreign soil as an Australian soldier hit Worsley harder than any bone-rattling hit-up from a kick-off ever could.

“That’s when it gets real, when you step off the plane and it hits you in the face straight away,” Worsley said of the intense heat.

“When you step off the plane and into the heat, that was probably one of the toughest challenges because with my job I was outside 90 per cent of the time and you couldn’t even sit down on anything because it was just that hot.

“We were the security for the Air Force base in Tarin Kowt and we could respond to anything. It’s a pretty enormous base shared with a lot of ANA (Afghan National Army) soldiers and anything could happen with them.

“It’s kind of surreal. You’ve been training for so long that you get a bit desensitised to the danger. The first few days you are a bit on edge and it’s all exciting and new but after that you fall into a routine and it’s just like any other job… until something happens.”

The “something” that Worsley refers to ranged from anything from a car accident on base to rockets coming in from eight kilometres away, a far cry from the field of battle he originally hoped his career would involve.

Ten NRL teams have been handed the honour of playing on Anzac Day on Saturday, starting with the Warriors and Titans in Auckland and culminating with the Broncos and Eels at Suncorp Stadium more than eight hours later.

Special Anzac Day ceremonies will be conducted at each of the five games as the NRL pays tribute to the more than 500 rugby league players and officials who served in World War I.

Broncos players have credited their defensive resolve in 2015 to a torturous pre-season boot camp that coach Wayne Bennett put them through but for Bennett it was more a way of showing that defending repeat sets on your own try-line isn’t as hard as we sometimes make out.

“It’s not easy. In society today where we get everything so easy, being a soldier is not easy,” Bennett said on the eve of the game.

“I like the boot camps for our guys because it takes them out of their comfort zone and puts them in a place where they’ve never been before.

“I love the occasion. The three years I spent at the Dragons it was really, really special so I’m just pleased that the game is endorsing it more.

“All of Australia deserves it, not just one city, and I think that’s what the game has tried to do this weekend so I’m really pleased with it.”

Worsley and the members of the Australian Combined Armed Services rugby league team will attend a mid-morning ceremony in Brisbane on Saturday morning and be special guests at the Broncos-Eels clash ahead of their game against the NZ Defence Force next Friday night. Some members of the squad joined the Eels for dinner on Friday night to share their stories and what Anzac Day means to them.

Since joining the Air Force in 2011 Worsley has spoken to former teammates about Defence Force careers but concedes that it is not for everyone. “Through security training there were a lot of nights where you’re only going off one or two hours sleep and that’s stuff that you don’t really do when you’re playing football,” he said.

“[Football] is all about rest and recovery so when you have to back up after one hour’s sleep or two hours’ sleep and you’re awake all night, that’s the toughest challenge for a lot of people.”

Former South Sydney flyer Joven Clarke – whose speed was just enough to make up for his lack of size – joined the Australian Army when he retired from rugby league while Tom Kingston quit the Titans last year to also take up an opportunity with the Army.

Worsley made his decision in France while pondering what he would do after playing one season with the Pia Donkeys and says that when The Last Post is played on Saturday he – like many thousands of Australians – will ponder the loss of life 100 years ago that gave us the life we now lead.

“When you go through your training they take you through a lot of the history and when you actually comprehend the numbers involved of the people who lost their lives.” said Worsley, who also had a stint with Ipswich Jets in the Intrust Super Cup last season.

“When someone has got you in a classroom and is telling you how many people died and you’re not just hearing it on a news story it becomes a bit more real.

“I remember one time they took us outside and said, ‘Take a look at the size of this oval. This is the size of the land they were fighting over in Gallipoli.’ I reckon it was the size of five tennis courts; that’s the size of the area that these people were fighting over. For months and months and months, fighting over five tennis courts…

“I’ve definitely got a greater appreciation for Anzac Day now.”