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School of Hard Knocks: The TV show making a difference, one small step at a time

Sky’s documentary-turned-charity is focused on getting the basics right to break a vicious cycle.

FOR SOME ISSUES – the endemic problems that really take a stranglehold on entire communities and cultures – there is no silver bullet, no simple shortcut to undo and put things right again.

Every small measure to make a positive difference and disrupt the vicious socioeconomic cycles of unemployment, discrimination and crime takes an endless effort.

In its six series, Sky’s School of Hard Knocks has attempted to highlight those big issues by making small differences.

“It’s one of the most enriching things that we do,” says Scott Quinnell who coaches on screen along with Will Greenwood.

imageImage credit: Peter Devlin

“Where it started as a rugby-orientated show, now it’s much more about trying to get the players employment through the vehicle of rugby.

“Rugby is all inclusive. Whether you’re 6″10′, 5″2′, 15 stone, 20 stone, quick, slow… it doesn’t matter, you can still play.”

Nor does it matter where the recruits’ journeys have taken them before stepping in front of Quinnell and the rest of the SOHK team. By no means is every Hard Knock a hardened criminal, but some of the men who turn up seeking a second (third or fourth) chance at life range in experience from multiple stabbings, suicide attempts, public police stand-offs and, in one case, the instigating of a notorious prison riot.

What began as an insert on Sky Sports’ weekly magazine show The Rugby Club in 2008 quickly earned the need for its own space and airtime.

Each series, each episode manages to present the turmoil in which men in Britain’s disadvantaged communities go through in trying to break the cycle, all the while offering a helping hand to escape the mire by the comparably small act of moulding them into a rugby team. The programme instills a sense of discipline and confidence; then connects the out-of-work players to job opportunities.

“The key thing that makes it successful,” producer Luke Rosier tells TheScore.ie, “is finding the right location and then recruiting the right guys.

“Our main source of recruitment comes from the people in job centres – Ken [Cowen] met with the job centres in Glasgow and was able to arrange the appointment with anyone, basically, who was male, over the age of 18 and unemployed.

“We don’t screen anyone before they come in. It’s just ‘the more the merrier’. It’s a little difficult in that you don’t know how may will show up when you start filming.”


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imageImage credit: Peter Devlin

Indeed that was exactly the case when SOHK went to Croydon. With only six men turning out for training, the stand-out montage from episode one was the frustrating journey banging on doors to remind the ‘pupils’ of the commitment they had made.

“So many times we get there and boys are late,” says Quinnell in that familiar booming, lilting accent.
“They don’t go to bed until three in the morning, they get up at three in the afternoon and they think of excuses about why they can’t do things rather than facing their fears and figuring out how to get around them.

“They’ve never had an arm put around them, never had someone ask what’s wrong. They’ve always been told ‘you’re stupid’, ‘you can’t do this’, and ‘you’re a bad boy’.”

The ex-Lion adds:  “The biggest change is from seeing yourself as a victim. In Glasgow there is a lot of stabbings, high unemployment, a lot of low self-esteem, then trying to build them back up and giving them the opportunity to go out and sell themselves.

“Everybody wants to be the best they can be. But if you get told enough times, ‘you’re stupid and you’re lazy’, then you become what you believe and what you’re told you are.”

Inevitably, the efforts of Quinnell, Greenwood and the coaches who put the hard yards in week in, week out take them to encounters of varying emotional states with their pupils. Close bonds are formed as the Hard Knocks are ‘broken down and built back up again’. Rosier just regrets that four hours of television can’t always translate every nuance within the 250 hours of footage.

Since its inception the ideals of SOHK have swelled and spread. Last year it became a registered charity and the organisation now runs runs the eight-week development camp in locations all around the UK whether there are lenses trained on them or not.

When the booms and cameras are switched off and packed back up, charity director Ken Cowen’s aim is to leave a legacy to the likes of Glasgow, Liverpool and Croydon. The latest series ended with nine men, most of who had never played organised rugby before SOHK, on the books with their local Allen Glens club and more in gainful employment.

More importantly, “they’re together”, Quinnell sums up.

imageImage credit: Peter Devlin

“The one thing that rugby does, it’s an instant family, an instant respect from other people; because when you put your body on the line you gain that respect.

“They know more people – they’ll have contacts within the community: whether you need a plumber, a brickie, a lawyer… no matter what you need there’ll be somebody who knows where, when and why.”

“They’re comfortable in and around that environment, they don’t feel they’re alone, they’ve got people to turn to. That’s why these guys get so much out of it. Where they used to walk with their heads down around Glasgow, they can walk with heads held high.

“They’ve pushed themselves to the limit.”

Rugby is all about doing the little things well, from there anything is possible.

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Sean Farrell

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