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In 2007 Ken Cowen approached the UK borough of Knowsley about using rugby to transform the lives of men. He was told it was a stupid idea that wouldn't work.

Luckily he persevered because now he's the successful founder and CEO of a charity called School of Hard Knocks (SOHK), which has brought him to Te Wānanga o Aotearoa (the other side of the world) a decade on.

During this time, SOHK has grown and now runs around 50 courses a year throughout the UK, helping thousands of vulnerable members of society tackle issues surrounding unemployment, crime and poor health by using rugby and other fitness courses to deliver powerful life lessons.

Secondary schools have also introduced SOHK into their curriculum as a preventative measure for youth as young as 12, who have already been identified as at-risk from being excluded from school.

So far it's been taken onboard by 16 schools in the UK with encouraging results.

"I thought it was a concept worth pursuing because the values of rugby are life values," says Ken, who is visiting New Zealand for the first time to further witness the positive benefits of his original dream.

"It's a genuine thrill to be here. I would've never believed that something I thought of 10 years ago would reach these shores," he says.

"The welcome I've received has been incredible. In a world where first impressions count, these young men have been great ambassadors for this country. Today will be the first day of their lives."

As a pioneering programme which aims to help young people realise their potential and stay engaged in education, Ken says SOHK has been televised by Sky Sports for the past nine years.

The first season based in New Zealand was filmed last year with a re-play on Māori Television.

This year, for its second season, SOHK has partnered up with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa to film 18 young tauira from Māngere Campus, who will work towards their NCEA Level 2 fitness qualification while receiving additional expert coaching and mentoring advice from sporting greats such as Sir John Kirwan and Sonny Bill Williams.

Sports and Youth education manager Desiree Wallace, who is facilitating the initiative on behalf of the wānanga, says the class involved in SOHK will be filmed over the next 12 weeks to document their journey in class, at the gym and of course, on the rugby field.

"School of Hard Knocks and Te Wananga o Aotearoa have the same vision to help disadvantaged youth who have faced difficult challenges in life. We both want to steer students in the right direction by using sport and other challenging activities to enable them to take positive steps forward in their lives."

For Māori Television, SOHK was translated to Te Kura Patu Uaua and throughout the filming the tauira acknowledge there will no doubt be difficulties they will have to defeat.

During their mihi whakatau to commence SOHK which started filming this week, 17-year-old Tamati Te Whaiti thanked all the organisers and supporters for the opportunity.

"From the first day we've just all smashed into it together. I'm loving it."

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Published On: 16 Aug, 2017

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