The rugby scheme that gives teens like Billy the skills for a brighter future

Tomé Morrissy-Swan
Billy Duffy: 'I’ve made more friends here than I’ve had anywhere else' - COPYRIGHT JAY WILLIAMS

At Topsham Rugby Club, just south of Exeter, a group of teenagers are solving maths questions in a compact clubhouse that doubles as a classroom.

In a nearby changing room, others are taking a break after a game of table tennis. One student has just lost a match, but that doesn’t stop him returning to class and helping others with their equations. 

The student, Billy Duffy, 18, is enrolled on a Hitz course, part of a scheme that is aimed at getting young people not in education, training or employment (NEET) back on track.

Hitz works with each of England’s 13 professional rugby clubs to helps deliver this educational and sporting programme locally; Duffy’s is run in conjunction with league leaders Exeter Chiefs.

Participants have often faced a challenging upbringing, such as a mental health issue, exclusion from school or have broken the law; some simply don’t have the confidence to attend college. Since its inception in 2009, almost 16,000 youths have passed through Hitz’s doors.

All clubs deliver the programme slightly differently, but the core is the same: it’s an employability programme, offering functional skills in maths and English (the soft skills many participants lack) and sport. 

Each centre has a Hitz officer, who focuses on sports coaching, activities and enrichment, and a tutor, who delivers the educational aspects. With 12 modules to cover over 40 weeks, there’s plenty to get through, explains Lewis Griffiths, the tutor at Topsham.

Billy Duffy with tutor Lewis Griffiths (left) and coach Gareth Williams (right) Credit: Jay Williams

Aside from maths and English, there’s anatomy, physiology, sports coaching and more. Students must complete 100 hours of work experience, and are taught crucial employability skills, such as how to impress at job interviews. 

“A lot of the time, with a qualification, all you get is a piece of paper,” says Griffiths. “What we’re trying to do is give them tangible evidence.” Much of this centres around work experience; for Duffy, it was in construction work. Griffiths explains that it’s about “getting that broader view of what opportunities there are out there.” 

Almost all those who enrol on the programme receive qualifications, including a BTEC in sports and active leisure. But, speaking to those involved, it’s clearly about much more than that. “Qualifications are really important, I completely get that,” says Griffiths.

“At the same time, it’s that holistic point of view we’re really trying to work on here. I want them to get their qualifications, but at the same time it’s about how we can develop them as a person, so when they leave here they’ve got those soft skills; they can look people in the eye, shake their hands. It’s huge, and it gets overlooked sometimes at schools and colleges.” 

Everything at Hitz revolves around the core values of rugby, known as TREDS: teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship. “We always try and revert back to that. Teamwork is massive for us here,” says Griffiths. Students are keen to help and support each other, with Duffy seen as one of the most willing to lend a hand. 

Duffy has reaped the benefits since joining in late 2018. Confident, smart and funny, he admits that school was a struggle. “I didn’t finish,” Duffy explains.

“Because of my mental health, I couldn’t cope with school in the slightest. I got asked to leave because of my mental health and how it was affecting other people. I’d kick off constantly, run out of class, hit things, hit people, unfortunately.”

Before Hitz, Duffy lost his father and was moved into a foster placement. He was sectioned into a mental health unit, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and depression. 

Since arriving at Topsham, however, his mental health has improved. “I just feel comfortable now. Before, I was battling my inner thoughts, thinking I was worthless. Now I realise I am worth something at least, that’s really helped.” 

Hitz is run by Premiership Rugby, and is sponsored by Wooden Spoon, the “children’s charity of rugby”; one of three charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Appeal.

Across the country, professional rugby clubs are helping youths like Duffy, mostly between 16 and 19, regain control of their lives. Over 1,500 have progressed onto education, training or employment, while 80 per cent have reported a boost in personal, social and physical wellbeing. With youth service funding dwindling, programmes like Hitz are crucial.

But it isn’t exclusively a rugby course. Though Griffiths and Gareth Williams, the Hitz officer for Exeter Chiefs, are rugby players, their teaching is fluid. Physical activity, of which there is roughly an hour and a half per day, could include football, climbing or ultimate frisbee.

“What we’re trying to do is give them as many experiences of new sports or activities, rather than just rugby,” says Griffiths. 

In the classroom, lessons sometimes link to rugby, but more often than not they don’t. One, for example, saw students planning a mock wedding, including budgeting, speeches and vows. It was aimed at boosting presentation, speaking, listening and communication. “Sneaky learning,” jokes Duffy. 

But Duffy has clearly taken to the sport. He played a bit of rugby at school, but wasn’t particularly interested. “I was just good because I was bigger than everyone; I’d play anywhere I could run into people.”

Not long after joining Hitz, he made his debut for Griffiths’ rugby team. Despite being the youngest and least experienced, Duffy has played several times for the senior team. 

It’s a challenging situation, one Duffy describes as “really strange”. Griffiths thinks the Duffy who first joined could have been put off by some of the more robust coaching dished out in the men’s game.

“Before, he might have taken that badly and walked off, but now it’s about having the resilience and skills to go, ‘hold on a minute, he’s just trying to improve things’. That’s where the biggest development has been with Billy, the confidence in himself, then realising, having the communication skills to work that out effectively.”

Furthermore, thanks to the course’s emphasis on physical activity, Duffy has lost three stone since signing up.

  

The programme is improving his home life, too. Recently, he moved out of care and back home with his mother and younger sister; after we meet, he’s off to pick up a new puppy.

Previously, he lived 10 minutes away from Topsham. The journey now is an hour and a half  each way. It’s a long day, but his attendance record remains unblemished, a testament to the work Griffiths and Williams do. 

Embracing the future is now back on Duffy’s agenda. He’s not sure exactly what he wants to do, career-wise, but definitely something to do with sport; sport psychology is a particular interest. “His knowledge of anatomy and physiology blows my mind,” says Griffiths, who will help with university visits and applications. 

Crucially, Hitz has improved Duffy's social life, too. “Before, with my mental health being so bad, it was hard to make friends,” he says. “Now I’ve settled down, I can actually talk to people.  

“I can work in a team now and not feel like I have to lead it. I know some people are better than me at stuff; it’s about learning how to work together. And I’ve made more friends here than I’ve had anywhere else.” 

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