Rugby might have been getting a bad rap lately, but for All Black legend Sir John Kirwan, it's still a way to change lives and give hope to disadvantaged young Kiwis, writes Sarah Ell.

The first thing you learn when you interview Sir John Kirwan is that you can expect to be interrupted. And the second thing you learn, during the course of those interruptions, is that despite hanging up his boots in 1999, the blond winger known as J.K. is still very much loved and admired. Some fans want selfies, some just want to say hello and thank him - for both his work on the field and in the field of mental health.

Those spheres have come together in a television project Kirwan has been working on with executive producer Hugo Fitzsimmons. Last year a pilot of School of Hard Knocks aired on Sky and Maori Television, and this year a full-length series has been made, following the progress of a group of disadvantaged young men from South Auckland as they try to turn their lives around through becoming involved in sport.

Kirwan is the head coach of the New Zealand branch of the School of Hard Knocks charity, established in the UK in 2008. He came on board after seeing what his former rugby rivals Will Greenwood and Scott Quinnell had done with the British series.


"I always felt that when I played rugby it had such a positive influence and changed my life," Kirwan says. "I was a butcher from Mangere, I've lived in Italy and Japan, and I've met many guys from challenging backgrounds who found that rugby turned their lives around. "These boys, though, are from really hard backgrounds. Some have just come out of prison - they've had a life that at times would just make you cry."

Kirwan says when he was first contacted to be involved with the programme, he didn't really feel "qualified" to try to help.

"Last year was really interesting for me because I had a prejudice I didn't know I had - I used to think that if you just get stuck in and work hard, everything will be okay. But it's much more complex than that.

Sir John Kirwan coaches keen rugby players in Mangere. Photo / Greg Bowker
Sir John Kirwan coaches keen rugby players in Mangere. Photo / Greg Bowker

"I've had to change my thinking and be a lot more open-minded. I'm used to working with rugby players or other sports people who have already made some sacrifices to be where they are. These kids are just struggling to survive a lot of the time."

This year the charity is working with Mangere's Te Wananga o Aotearoa, so participants can gain an NCEA Level 2 qualification through their attendance. As well as classes in fitness-related subjects, they also have two rugby training sessions a week and a gym session.

The series reaches a climax with Kirwan's trainees playing a game of rugby against an invitational club team.

"For a lot of these boys and their families it's the biggest thing they've done in their lives, and it's really emotional," says Fitzsimmons. "The rugby is almost irrelevant."

Other professional sportspeople such as All Black Ofa Tu'ungafasi and former Warriors player Wairangi Koopu also help with coaching and inspiration. The group also visited the SAS and met soldiers from similar backgrounds, who had turned their lives around in the military. Many on the course aspire to be personal trainers or work in a sports-related field.

"What we want to try to do is give them positive role models who have come from where they've come from. They've got every right to say 'it's easy for you' to someone like me," Kirwan says.

And although he himself was brought up in South Auckland, Kirwan says it's not about where you come from physically that affects your chances of success in life.

"It's got everything to do with parenting and home life and the company you keep. I was from Mangere and went to De La Salle but that doesn't matter - you can be from Remuera and get beaten up, or can be from Epsom and be getting abused at home. It's about what's happening in the home environment."

Kirwan says that although the time restraints of a TV series may not necessarily allow for lasting change, there are lots of success stories from the previous year's programme. And he agrees that there is a dilemma in making television entertainment out of people's struggles.

"I didn't just want to come along for 10 weeks then walk away. We wanted to get the wananga involved so they get a qualification at the end of it, and we want to put a plan around what they need to follow in the future. If they don't follow it, well, we'll walk away but you've got to give them the tools."

As for the show's title, it's not about the old school idea of rugby being the way to knock some sense into these young men.

"The school of hard knocks is their life, and we want to give them some sort of pathway out of that," Kirwan says. "It's our job to try to turn them around, and my challenge to people watching is to think, how would you be if this was your background?"


School of Hard Knocks

, on Sky Sport 1 on Tuesdays at 8pm