When Will Greenwood (or Greens as I call him) and I were told we were off to Birmingham this year for series seven of School of Hard Knocks, we thought how can we make this the best one yet? We wanted to get even more unemployed men back into work and deep down we wanted to make the best rugby side too.
For the past six years we have recruited and worked with around 200 unemployed men, inviting them to build a rugby team and take part in a course that aims at improving fitness, social development and life skills with the end goal of obtaining a job. It's been a rollercoaster of emotions and worth every second.
At the start of this year's course the weather was havoc and just down the road people in Worcester were travelling up the high street via boats. When we turned up for day one with the rain hammering it down we were thinking "are we actually going to be able to teach them any rugby today?" But this isn't called the School of Hard Knocks for nothing, plus we were based at semi-professional side, Moseley's ground with an all-weather pitch at our disposable. So with around 30 men, we trudged through the bog and training got underway. At this point the rain had turned to snow!
After about 20 minutes, one of the boys ran off to be sick, nothing out of the ordinary, except, when we asked him what he had had for breakfast he replied absinthe. That's where we brought in team psychologist, Paul Boross, who worked with him quite closely over the seven weeks.
Sadly stories like this are all too common around the country. We chose Birmingham for this series as it has the highest unemployment rate of any major UK city. With more than twice the UK average of unemployment, almost a fifth of the working age population in Birmingham is without work. These guys are struggling and when we come to them offering them a chance, half of the battle is getting them to believe they can take it.
We only have about 12 sessions of actual rugby training to form a side for their final match, but this isn't all about rugby, so back in the clubhouse we have a small team working with the boys on their résumés and interview training techniques.
One of my most memorable days of this series was when Matt Hampson visited us. Hambo, a former English rugby union prop and now charity founder, was left paralysed from the neck down after a scrum collapsed in an England training session. He told the boys of his story and explained that no matter what life throws at you it is important to remain positive throughout. This motivational talk was a great opportunity for the boys to learn an extremely valuable life lesson.
We try to speed up the bond between the group with trips to take them out of their comfort zone. This series we went back to somewhere I am very familiar with, Wales. We put the boys through a tough morning of hill runs in the beautiful but unforgiving Snowdonia National Park. This took place on week 4 and immediately after, back at training you can see the results of trips like this when they suddenly gel.
Greens and I were pretty impressed with how well the rugby was going and that's also thanks to our head coach, Paul Allen for steering the ship when we get dragged off to do pieces to camera.
So with that said and the offer of a fire training course down at Gatwick Airport we took the boys down South.We learnt various techniques used by the fire crew and then put them to the test when we moved inside a real fire fighting scenario. Keeping calm and working as a group we put out the blaze and then moved through a model house.
It was then we had, arguably the biggest day we've ever had on Hard Knocks when Prince Harry turned up for training and got properly stuck in, to his credit. Everyone raised their game.
On the final week of the course, we headed to The Library of Birmingham where over 20 employers were awaiting the boys, all looking very smart in their suits and ties. All those miserable mornings out in the driving rain and snow seemed worthwhile as you watch them smiling, shaking hands, maintain eye contact with representatives from companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, o2 and Timpson.
Our final day, and to make sure the boys were as best prepared as they could be for their final game, England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, took the warm up and presented the squad with their shirts. We played amateur side who are also based on the same facilities, Moseley Oak and the boys played the best performance we had ever seen on a show.
This year's School of Hard Knocks - Starting 10pm, 12th September, on Sky Sports 2 and 10pm, 14 September, on Sky 1