Better living through rugby
July 27, 2012
Helen Clayton now manages the Hitz campaign, having won 88 caps for England © Getty Images
Helen Clayton won 88 caps for England. Maggie Alphonsi calls her "a legend". But the memories aren't as fresh in the mind as they might be. "That seems like another life to me," she said. "I have to look at pictures to be reminded of it."
Rugby is still dominates her life, but in a very different way. She now serves as manager of Hitz, the award-winning community programme run by Premiership Rugby. Pioneered in London three years ago, Hitz is set to go national over the next 12 months.
Fresh projects have been launched by Northampton, Bath and Sale, while further development is imminent at Gloucester, Leicester and Worcester, and Clayton hopes to have every club, including Premiership rookies London Welsh, signed up by the end of the season.
Each club makes an annual commitment worth £55-57,000, which funds full-time workers, kit and equipment. They are signing up to a programme that can already point to spectacular results in the Haggerston Park district of Hackney, where anti-social behaviour calls to the police have dropped by 39% during the time Hitz sessions have been running. Also, 73% of participants believe the sessions have helped them with controlling emotions and anger.
None of the 1600 participants, involved precisely because they were likely to be involved in crime, public disorder or anti-social behaviour, have been identified as taking part in the 2011 London riots.
The next wave of projects will have a slightly different emphasis, shifting from a focus on criminality to the problems of 16-19-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training, but the underlying principle remains the same.
"It works with any kids," Clayton said. "Rugby teaches you discipline and how to control yourself, but at the same time it allows you to express yourself in a way that is often discouraged - you are asked to run around, show aggression and to be proud of your size or shape. It is a great vehicle for lads and girls who are confused about their bodies and abilities."
Hitz is also at the British cutting edge of a very modern trend, albeit based on long-established ideas - the belief that rugby might have a real role to play in making a better world, particularly for the young and underprivileged.
That idea was the inspiration for the first Beyond Rugby conference, held at Twickenham as part of the Beyond Sport Summit. There were reminders of the possibilities in other sports, with Rita Benson Leblanc of the New Orleans Saints making the essential point that "sport is the common language that can connect everybody". Luke Dowdney of Fight for Peace talked of the redemptive possibilities of boxing in language very similar to that used about rugby.
Nor was the language that of a conventional rugby event. The vocabularies of business, management and therapy also proliferated. To hear Lawrence Dallaglio talk of "best practice" and "capacity building" with the fluency he used to devote to post-match explanations of the latest Wasps victory was to realize that the game is taking on a fresh dimension.
The event was topped and tailed by legendary Wasps, with Dallaglio's keynote speech outlining the work of the Dallaglio Foundation - in his own words "a small charity with a big ambition" - which has raised £4m since 2010 and was recently adopted by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) as its social responsibility partner. He was followed at the end by Serge Betsen talking about the charity he runs in his native Cameroon.
The organisers could flourish an impressive range of corporate and institutional backing. Ian Ritchie of the RFU said that the game and his organization did have a wider social obligation, Giles Morgan of HSBC argued that "sponsorship used to be a badging exercise, but now it is more of a 360 degree engagement" and Mark McCafferty of Premiership Rugby talked of the vital importance of "inspiring individuals" in driving projects. If Clayton and Ken Cowen, founder of the School of Hard Knocks showcased by the Sky television series, represent the British archetypes for such individuals, there is also an impressive international dimension.
Nobody caught the collective imagination more than Alberto Vollmer, chief executive of Venezuelan rum-makers San Teresa, and his story of how some informal justice handed out to a couple of local miscreants had grown into Project Alcatraz, a rugby-based social programme that had made immense inroads into a deep-rooted local gang culture, reducing the local homicide rate by nearly two-thirds during a period when national numbers were headed in the opposite direction.
Not the least intriguing element in the story told by Vollmer, who learnt his rugby as a schoolboy in Paris, was that rugby's obscurity to most Venezuelans had been a positive asset. "Because nobody knows it, everybody starts equal, whoever they are," he said.
Common themes emerged beyond a shared belief that rugby embodies a set of values that, in Dallaglio's words are "a compass for life and a real grounding". Among these is that shorter, more accessible forms of the game may have a more important role to play in community projects than the complexities of 15-a-side.
Dallaglio spoke of devising a form of 'rugby 4s', while Martin Hansford of the Tag Rugby Trust offered eloquent and convincing advocacy from his experience in countries such as Uganda. Nobody was quite heretical enough to suggest that rugby league's inherent simplicity might also give it a role.
Growth of course brings growing pains. Cowen expressed the fear that "we could all spend the next 10 years doing the same things in isolation". In this context, the proposal by Mark Griffin of Play USA for a 'Global Rugby Collaborative', networking practitioners and sharing ideas, appeared timely.
It remains to be seen whether, as one participant suggested, the community sections will be the driving force of most Premiership rugby clubs in 20 years' time. Old priorities have a way of reasserting themselves in commercial and sporting organisations. But that something is happening, and that it conceives of rugby in terms that take it way beyond a heritage as a ruling class pursuit, is not in doubt.
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