Phil Vickery may be a World Cup winner but the former England star says his own struggles to reach the top meant he was inspired by Premiership Rugby’s inaugural HITZ Awards on Wednesday evening.
Five of the many thousands of HITZ participants were honoured at Barclays HQ in London and Vickery presented the Community Impact Award, supported by Wooden Spoon – which was won by Leicester Tiger’s Ryan Cummings.
HITZ is Premiership Rugby's multi award-winning programme that uses rugby to tackle some of the greatest challenges facing young people today – unemployment, crime and disillusionment.
And Vickery insists that thanks to the huge part rugby played in his life, the moving stories of the award winners hit particularly close to home.
“It’s always difficult to sum up what rugby did for me – it touches you in so many ways,” he said.
“There were some tough times for me growing up and the only place I actually felt really happy was on a rugby field.
“We talk about community, charity and giving and I think rugby is the one sport that is a giving sport. It’s a brilliant game and to see the work HITZ do is unbelievable.
“What rugby can offer, particularly to these guys, is a place where they can go, feel safe, get some discipline and get put in line.
“But you can also express yourself, have some fun and make friends for life.
“HITZ is leading the way with this kind of work – not waiting for something to go wrong but leading the way and pushing the boundaries.”
In addition to the Community Impact Award, there were four other gongs handed out as Bath Rugby’s Jorden Honan won Young Ambassador of the Year, supported by Land Rover, and Bath Rugby’s Jason Suttle won the Best Rugby Performer, supported by Premiership Rugby.
Dan Hart of Worcester Warriors scooped the HITZ Champion Award, supported by Comic Relief, while the Young Achiever of the Year, supported by Barclays, went to Relon Thompson of Northampton Saints.
Relon was paralysed after being shot in the back in a case of mistaken identity but claims that HITZ helped him recover and turn his life around.
“This has been amazing,” he said. “I really didn’t expect to win at all as there are so many other people here who have made it so far.
“I’ve grown so much since I’ve been with HITZ. I’ve seen myself turn from this little kid who followed the wrong people, to a mature adult who can make the right decisions.
“I know I should act my age and not my shoe size, and HITZ has helped me see that.”
HITZ uses rugby to increase young people's resilience, self-reliance and confidence and gives them the skills to get back into education, apprenticeships and employment.
Delivered nationally through 12 Premiership Rugby clubs it is supported by four key partners – Barclays, Comic Relief, Land Rover and Wooden Spoon.
And while he admits he was surprised to win the Community Impact Award, Ryan Cummings believes anyone thinking about joining the programme should definitely do so.
“It was a bit of a shock really because I thought one of the other lads was going to win it but I’m thankful that they picked me to get the award,” he said.
“I wanted to make an impact with lots of different things throughout the community and it felt really good.
“It’s been one of the best experiences of my life and it has got me doing what I want to do – I wanted to be involved with sport and now I’m enrolled on a level three sport course.
“I’d definitely say to someone who isn’t in work or in school to get along to their local HITZ – it will definitely help them get back on track and to where they want to be.”