An invite to attend the Premiership Rugby HITZ Awards evening seemed a very good way to find out about a programme that ticks a lot of boxes for me.  Having had 2 of my own 3 children dropping out of education with fairly dramatic consequences for one of them I was keen to learn more about the HITZ ethos and practice.

The programme started 5 years ago and is now running in 12 Premiership Clubs.  In the last year 300 young people took part in the employability programme earning over 700 qualifications between them over a 39 week course.  85% of those taking part are either in work, an apprenticeship of taking further qualifications.  A quote from the website sums the programme up.

‘The award winning HITZ programme tackles some of the greatest challenges facing young people today – unemployment, crime and disillusionment. Delivered nationally by Premiership Rugby and funded by partners Barclays, Comic Relief, Land Rover and Wooden Spoon, HITZ uses rugby to increase young peoples resilience, self-reliance and confidence. It gives them the skills to get back into education, vocational training, apprenticeships and employment. HITZ gives those with no hope new hope’

I could write a whole article about the principles involved and indeed will do at a later date; but for now I’m going to share the events of the evening.

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HITZ is backed by three main sponsors – Land Rover, Comic Relief, Wooden Spoon and Barclays whose amazing Canary Wharf building the event was held in – a head for heights was needed!

Nick Mullins and David Flatman introduced the evening and did a great double act throughout.  Mark McCafferty Premiership Rugby’s CEO explained, for those attending, the background to a programme looking to change the lives of the people involved by ‘creating opportunities then working with the young people to help them take the opportunity’.

The first award up was The Community Impact Award – Supported by Wooden Spoon the category is designed to recognise a HITZ young person who has contributed to the improvement of a community or club, through volunteering and service. The award looks at the impact of the young person’s volunteering in the community, and also the impact on the participant themselves.

Phil Vickery presented the award to Ryan Cummings of Leicester Tigers; Phil spoke about the impact rugby had on his own young life sharing – ‘There were some tough times for me growing up and the only place I actually felt really happy was on a rugby field’ – ‘Rugby is a warm and giving sport where you maker friends for life’ –  it was clear that Phil appreciates and is affected by the plight of some of the young people being helped by HITZ.

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Ryan spoke with confidence and ease on the stage in front of an audience; he’d gone the extra mile and amongst other things coached a girls’ football team he looked happy and at ease in the video clip showing him at ‘work’.

The next award up was The Young Ambassador of The Year –  Supported by Land Rover.  This award rewards the individual who has done the most to represent the HITZ programme to their peers and in their communities. It recognises someone who has grown and changed for the better and whose positive attitude has made an impact on those involved in and around the project.

Jason Robinson presented the award to Jorden Honan of Bath Rugby: Jason was very candid about his own early years explaining that he would have been in a very dark place if it wasn’t for rugby.  He never knew his father and had a similar upbringing to some of the young people being honoured.  Rugby gave him something to focus o, gave him discipline and helped him feel part of a team.  The game got him off the streets and gave him a focus, he now spends a lot of time at the HITZ programmes just dropping in on occasion.

Jorden for his part had been in a downward spiral; life was difficult at home and he got on the treadmill of smoking cannabis and drinking.  One such episode led to 2 of his friends being sent away.  HITZ has given him a new outlook and shown him what he can achieve.

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The Best Rugby Performer was next to be presented, supported by Premiership Rugby. The Rugby Performance award rewards an individual who has developed and progressed in their rugby performance, physical activity levels and capabilities as a result of participating in the HITZ programme. This is not necessarily those that have progressed the furthest in terms of level of play, but those that have improved the most, changed their attitude toward activity and improved their health as a result.

Wayne Morris Premiership Rugby’s Community and Corporate Social Responsibility Director along with Jermain Jackman, winner of The Voice 2014, presented the award to Jason Suttle of Bath Rugby.  Jason was lacking in confidence having been told at school he ‘couldn’t do stuff’ in his words, one teacher told him differently giving him the determination t succeed. HITZ has built on that; he has a natural understanding of rugby which in turn has given him the confidence to turn himself into a different person.

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The HITZ Champion Award  was next on the list – supported by Comic Relief, an award designed to recognise a HITZ participant or member of the community who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to help someone on the programme to overcome personal barriers to win. This could include supporting young people so that they can build a better future, prevent violent or exploitative situations or achieve healthier finances.

Sam Shave  of Comic Relief and Sam Jones of Wasps presented the award to Dan Hart of Worcester Warriors.  Dan involved with many young people has had a huge impact on the life if Nathan; a young lad who was homeless and addicted to drugs and drink.  Nathan came to the stage, looking happy and secure in his environment – he explained that Dan wouldn’t finish his day until he knew Nathan was safe.  To hear this young man speak was truly inspiring; to have a conversation with him and MP Mark Pawsey after the ceremony discussing a rugby match they’d taken part in as foes; was amazing when we consider where he was heading.  Nathan himself said he was proud of Dan and the things he’d done for him

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The final award was The Young Achiever of The Year – supported by Barclays the award recognises a young person who has overcome barriers to achieve personal success…… and who has attained the greatest positive progression in their personal journey returning to education, training and employment.

Hayden Smith of Saracens and Andy Mayne; Barclays Relationship Manager presented the award to a young man who has and will continue to face great adversity – Relon Thompson of Northampton Saints.  Relon was shot in the back by a pair of strangers in what can only have been a case of mistaken identity.   Relon paralysed from the waist down wheeled himself onto the stage and we had in front of us another young man confident enough to take to the stage and speak in front of a sizeable audience.

He explained that he’d been naughty as a young child managing to get himself kicked out of primary school – no mean feat!  He pretty much never went to secondary school and was amongst other things out and about selling drugs.  He was asked how he felt when he was told he’d never walk again – his response?  ‘He’s lying to me, trying to motivate me’  and on having to move from Luton to Northampton?  ‘None of my friends visited me in hospital, so no loss to leave them’

His family pushed him toward HITZ as they felt he was ready and again in his words the programme has changed his life dramatically – ‘turned me from a follower to a leader’.  Relon is now studying Music Engineering in College and that has all come about due to his involvement with HITZ.  He was asked if he’d heard Jerman Jackman sing and the response was a negative.

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All of the young people who climbed onto the stage had achieved a real transformation in their lives – the combined power of the values of the great game that is rugby and educational success has had a major effect.  They along with many of the other young people lucky enough to gain a place on the programme can look to a future where maybe before that future was written on the wall and included nothing good.  I for one want to learn a lot more about HITZ and hope to visit a few of the schemes in the New Year.

The formal part of the evening finished with Jermain Jackman singing; now I’m no Simon Cowell but oh my word this man can sing!  Like Relon I’d never heard him; but I’ll be keeping an eye out for the release of his album.  During the ‘after drinks’ the young people and officers from HITZ mingled with some rugby greats sun as Serge Betsen; the aforementioned Jason Robinson and Phil Vickery as well as current player Kyle Sinckler of Quins, Hayden Smith and Sam Jones.  There was a genuine interest on behalf of the players/ex-players they weren’t there because they had to be, they were there because they wanted to be.  A wonderfully inspiring evening all round.