Any Kleinwort Benson employee leaving their desk late last Wednesday could have been forgiven for feeling somewhat diminutive on their way out of the building. The central London offices of the asset management firm played host for the evening to a number of towering rugby types, with premiership players past and present gathering for the launch event of the latest television series of School of Hard Knocks.
It is testament to the success of the scheme that something which essentially began life as a reality TV show is now an established registered charity, with the Sky Sports programme documenting just a fraction of their overall work combatting social exclusion through sport.
SOHK focuses specifically on using rugby union as a tool to transform the lives of young men struggling with criminality and unemployment by giving them the opportunity to develop sporting, social and professional skills.
Players and coaches work with disadvantaged individuals to help them take responsibility for their own lives and take positive steps towards change through finding discipline and focus, as well as learning the practical skills needed to find work.
The eight week course culminates in both a rugby match and a jobs fair, and in many cases the scheme achieves monumental success by breaking a cycle of lethargy or criminal behaviour in the participants and helping them to develop a sense of self-worth and of belonging.
Some of the testimonials of participants are staggering tales of transformation, with Mike Henderson of the 2010 cohort being one such example. Having been in prison for virtually the entire two decades since his teens, Mike was approached outside a Croydon job centre by Will Greenwood and the SOHK team offering an alternative at what he describes as being a critical point in his life.
“There was a crossroads and a junction of ‘what do I do?’, and especially coming from a life of crime, criminality, that will always be an option for me. If at the right moment I didn’t find the opportunity, that option would become more attractive. SOHK took that attraction away: it gave me an alternative.”
Today, Mike works as a fitness instructor and as a Development Officer for the Dallaglio Foundation, using his experiences to relate to the teenagers and young adults that he works with. He is a staunch proponent of the SOHK programme, arguing that the experience of team sport can help keep inner city youths out of gangs.
“It gives a sense of belonging, and that gives a sense of identity. A lot of the youth issue today is that sense of belonging: they don’t have it.”
SOHK is set to continue its work in this area, intending to establish permanent rugby teams in Glasgow and South Wales to give disadvantaged young men the opportunity to access sport and all the positives that entails. In addition to this the charity is looking to expand its work in schools and in prisons, whilst also moving into initiatives to support former military men and women transitioning into post-service careers.
Although SOHK’s positive message and the human stories it tells have already sparked interest in its work, the inclusion of rugby legends Will Greenwood and Scott Quinnell as coaches has been instrumental in garnering support for the charity.
The pair act as mentors, trainers and friends to the men battling their way through the programme, with thunderous speeches of encouragement as well as providing an understanding face to turn to when the programme gets tough.
Scott Quinnell’s Inspirational Team Talk, School of Hard Knocks 2012:
The Lions pair expressed their excitement at their continued involvement in the charity through a video message at the event, as well as stressing the need for continued support for the charity to keep on with its work. It’s thanks in part to their involvement, as well as the support the charity’s message generates, that some of English rugby’s biggest names have backed SOHK and the work it does.
Speaking at the launch event, London Wasps and England fly-half Andy Goode was quick to point out the positive ethos of rugby and just how important the lessons it teaches can be.
“I think rugby is a tough combat sport but it’s played within the right spirit, most of the time, and it brings unity within the team”.
“Its a sport that, whatever level you’re at, is very down to earth – that’s a key thing. I think that’s the true spirit of rugby itself, it’s a down to earth game and anyone can play it of any shape or size”, Goode said.
This inclusiveness and lack of ego was mentioned time and time again at the event as one reason why rugby is the perfect sport for a charity like SOHK. The overriding importance of the team over the individual and the mental and physical toughness it demands also help bring out the best in its competitors – and move them away from the negative characteristics which stopped them living the lives they deserve.
SOHK looks to be going from strength to strength as it continues to grow and build a loyal following. The latest series begins this month on Sky Sports, documenting the latest batch of recruits from Glasgow as they embark on their rugby education.
High profile players continue to express their support for the SOHK philosophy, while local and national businesses have continued to step up and get involved. All this is excellent news for one of rugby’s most hard-hitting and life-changing charities as it seeks to build on what it’s already achieved – and go even further.
Series 6 of School of Hard Knocks is currently showing on Sky Sports 2 on Thursdays at 10pm. You can also support the charity by making a donation online here.
By: Mel Wright and Stephanie Ware