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Dallaglio using rugby to save lost children

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London (AFP)

Lawrence Dallaglio's towering rugby career originated through a sense of wanting to belong after a family tragedy and he is now using that experience to help give hope to children excluded from mainstream education.

Dallaglio -- a pivotal figure when England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup -- said his family was "blown apart" when his only sibling, 19-year-old Francesca, was one of 51 people who drowned after the pleasure boat Marchioness sank in the Thames in August 1989.

The 85-times capped former backrow forward was just 16 at the time and admits he had a couple of years where, deeply affected by his sister's loss and the impact it had on his parents, he was "definitely errant".

"You know, if you lose a member of your family it blows your family apart," Dallaglio told AFP.

"I had a couple of years where I was really struggling.

"It was not just me and my mom and my dad, the families of every other victim of the Marchioness were as well, I would imagine.

"I then saw my parents (Vincenzo and Eileen) and they were really struggling, as you'd imagine, when you bury one of your own children."

He was put back on the right path when he joined the then London-based rugby club Wasps.

"It was not because I wanted to play rugby, I know it sounds odd," he said.

"I joined the rugby club because I needed a sense of belonging, camaraderie, I needed someone, a family.

"The lovely thing about rugby, bizarrely, is it welcomes everyone.

"They (his parents) came to watch me and they felt something very strong and it brought a smile back to their face.

"That was the reason why in so many ways I owe rugby an enormous amount because it brought my family back together."

- 'Massive imbalance in society' -

Dallaglio, who drily remarks that rugby owes him a few teeth in a career that also saw him undergo 14 operations, drew on that experience and set up Dallaglio RugbyWorks six years ago.

He is justifiably proud it is now part of the curriculum at 83 schools nationwide -- schools that act as a safety net for pupils excluded from mainstream education.

His foundation is currently helping over 650 children aged 14-17 and the cost is considerable -- a three-year programme costs Dallaglio RugbyWorks up to £20,000 ($26,000) per school per year.

"The fun part for them is playing rugby," he says, but then they get them into the classroom and work on "things like CV writing, interview workshops, just general confidence".

The aim, or as Dallaglio puts it the "flag in the sand", is helping them into full-time employment. He claims children that have passed through the scheme have an 88 percent success rate in finding a job compared with 50 percent nationally.

According to RugbyWorks figures, each year on average 2,720 young people between the ages of 14-16 are excluded from mainstream education in Britain.

"It is about opening their eyes and giving them a different perspective," said Dallaglio, prior to a session of touch rugby for one of the schools in the project at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in south London.

"It is about putting your arms around them, building long-term care and trust and teaching them about not only respect to other people, but for themselves as well."

Dallaglio -- whose late mother liked to refer to him as an emerald and Francesca as a diamond -- says he wonders whether headmasters in mainstream schools are too quick to expel students.

"Just because a young person comes to this country and can't speak English doesn't mean you exclude them," he said.

"You have to look and ask head teachers what they are driven by.

"Are they driven by academic success or are they driven by wanting to look after and care about every young person that they come into contact with?

"I'd say some are and some aren't."

Ultimately, though, Dallaglio is motivated by giving back to those who have no-one to pick up a phone and use their contacts like he can for his friends' children to give them a leg up.

"There's two things guaranteed in life. You arrive with nothing and you leave with nothing," he said.

"You know, there's a massive imbalance in society between those who have and those who don't really. And we all need to do a little bit to change that.

"Because we often say that everyone deserves a second chance, but actually a lot of these young kids deserve the first chance.

"I inherently believe that no young people are born bad."

Due to the age gap, Dallaglio's name may mean little to the majority of the children but 14-year-old Kimberley has felt the benefits of his foundation.

"The old comments, all the bad stuff that people (at her old school) would say about you don't mean nothing to me when I have people cheering you on," she told AFP.

"You feel great about yourself. This has rebuilt my confidence."

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