"How hard can I run into him?" asks Emanuel, the 14-year-old boy standing in front of me with a rugby ball and a mischievous grin. "Not too hard," I reply as I grip nervously to a tackle pad. Welcome to the School of Hard Knocks, where it seems the only person likely to get really knocked about is me.
The coaches on this social inclusion project are made of sterner stuff. Paul Allen, who is leading today's session at Warlingham Rugby Club with 14 Year 9 boys from Warlingham and Oxted Schools in Surrey, stands no nonsense. He is director of rugby at Luton Rugby Football Club and a former policeman.
After a little gentle banter, Allen tells the boys how impressive they were at last week's session, before leading them on to the pitches. Most had never played rugby before the start of term but they have an impressive grasp of the rules and tactics. Not bad for a group of boys who apparently have serious problems accessing the school curriculum.
This unusual social inclusion project has been a successful solution for 400 boys across the country aged 16-24. Those taking part today are among the first to benefit as the scheme expands nationally.
The School of Hard Knocks started in 2007, when training consultant Ken Cowen was approached by Knowsley Council to help with a group of long-term unemployed young men. Cowen, a former Welsh National League player, suggested teaching them rugby, while trying to get them jobs.
Boys identified as "at risk" of ending up "Neet" (not in education, employment or training) are nominated by their teachers for the programme, jointly funded by Surrey County Council and the police. Mandi Turner, inclusion specialist at Oxted School, said they had seen a "massive wave of improvement" in the pupils.
After lunch, one of Allen's former police colleagues gives the boys a tough talking to on the concept of "joint enterprise", the legal argument used to lock up all the members of a gang when one of them commits a violent crime. Then it's back to the pitch. It is only their seventh training session but Emanuel and his mates are gearing up for a tournament against established local clubs in just three weeks' time. From the other side of the tackle bag, I would say they are in pretty good shape.
School of Hard Knocks is a newly registered charity working with Rugby Performance and Rugby Football Union coaches to deliver 10-week, one-day-per-week rugby coaching and life skills sessions. For more information, visit sohk.org.uk
Steven Gauge is the author of My Life as a Hooker: when a middle-aged bloke discovered rugby (Summersdale, #163;8.99)
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