The London Broncos have been undergoing a military experience ahead of their return to the Super League.
The players and staff of the recently-promoted team were invited down to Swinton Barracks on Salisbury Plain for a two-day boot camp run by 22 Engineer Regiment.
The design of the experience was to test the players both physically and mentally through a range of difficult challenges including fitness, drills and basic fieldcraft.
At the start of the day, the players did not know what to expect according to second row Matty Gee who said: “I’m a bit nervous but excited at the same time. I think all the lads are a bit nervous because it’s just about the unknown really.
“They are hardcore, aren’t they, the Army lot?
"It’s good to test ourselves and see what they are doing. It’s enlightening really to live two days in their lives."
A man currently working for the Broncos who has previous military experience is kit man Sergeant Mark Woodward.
He explained exactly what the Rugby League team had to gain from the boot camp: “The London Broncos have come here for a pre-season camp because we have military connections through myself and other people.
"It’s to try and enhance the players and give them a bit of leadership, cohesion, integrity, teamwork and team-bonding.
“I think they are doing really well because professional sports are a completely different fitness to the military. Obviously, you have to be fitter for longer whereas with professional sport, you have to be fitter for a shorter period in the game.
"Bringing the two together will bring them the strength and commitment to last the full game and go out and win it.”
First up for the players was a drill practice. During this lesson, they learnt about following orders and marching as a unit although they found it difficult at first.
Key player Rhys Williams said:
"It’s a ‘do as your told’ sort of thing
“It’s a lot tougher than it looks. Just listening to the commands when they are shouting, it’s kind of hard to listen to what they are saying.”
His family also has military roots with his sister Sian Williams serving in the RAF and representing Wales in the Rugby Union.
When asked about whether his sister will have helped him prepare for the Army experience, the Broncos' man had his doubts: “She’s not worked (in the military) for two years as she has been playing rugby.
"She’s been no help at all. I like to think she’d think I’m doing well, but she’d probably give me a hard time.”
The Broncos won promotion back to the Super League after a four-year absence and they did it in style, winning the ‘Million Pound Game’ against Toronto in October.
The rise in their opponent’s ability for next season is a key factor to why they are working with the army, according to Williams: “Obviously, we are going up into the Super League and things will step up another notch.
"There’s going to be no easy games. I wouldn’t say there was easy games in the Championship. It was a very tough competition but week in and week out, it will almost feel like a Grand Final for us this year.
"It’s going to be when you are 60 minutes into a game and it’s tough where you think back to experiences like this.
"It can certainly help put you in the right frame of mind to do the next job or put the right foot forward to be positive in those situations.”
After the drills, the squad completed a basic army fitness test before learning how to correctly transport any injured soldiers. In the afternoon, they learnt about how soldiers look out for the enemy, which is a skill they can take to the rugby pitch.
“Some of the lessons that we have devised for the camp, we have tried to look at what they do as professional sportsmen and use the lessons that we do as soldiers,” said Staff Sergeant Mike Thompson.
“When we teach them why things are seen, we go through a thing called successes. It’s shadow, shape, shine, sudden movement and silhouette. That’s when we are looking for the enemy and observing the far ground.
“When they are on the rugby pitch and looking around at what play is coming up, they will be thinking two or three plays ahead. It’s a way of looking at things in a different perspective that just as a sportsman.
SSgt Thompson is a major part of how the experience was arranged, thanks to a long-standing relationship with Broncos' Head Coach, Danny Ward.
“I’ve known Mike Thompson quite a long time,” said Ward. “We used to coach the scholarship together at the London Broncos. He’s had the Royal Engineers Rugby League team down at the Broncos quite a few times where we trained them so he’s returning the favour now.
“He briefed me a little bit but it was all army jargon. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about really. I just said they are all yours. We handed them over on day one and said we don’t want anything to do with them really. They are all yours. Do with them as you may.”
The man who gave the go-ahead for the camp to happen is the Regiment’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Baker. He can see the similarities between sport and the military:
“They are having to learn to fend off each other and share certain items of kit much in the same way that the Army does.
“I think that is where the synergies lie between a sports team and the team that we have in the Army. That whole team ethos is very important to them in the sports world and to us in the army.”
The Broncos will be hoping to take the skills that they have learned into the new season, which starts on 3 February at home to Wakefield Trinity.