Lawrence Dallaglio: Rugby saved me from ‘some pretty bad life choices’

Alex Spink
Rugby World Cup winning England forward Lawrence Dallaglio.

Rugby World Cup winning England forward Lawrence Dallaglio.

Lawrence Dallaglio was a lost soul when he found rugby. Angry, grief-stricken, railing against the unfairness of life in the face of tragedy.

“I needed a family away from family, a community, a sense of purpose,” he says. “I needed someone just to put their arms around me and hold me.”

“Rugby is very significant in my life”

Eighteen months after his sister Francesca died in the 1989 Marchioness riverboat disaster his life was spiralling out of control.

“I was making some pretty bad life choices. For a couple of years things weren’t going particularly well.”

By chance, he picked up a newspaper and clocked an advert inviting prospective players to come and have a go at Wasps, England’s champion club.

“The ‘why’ about why I played rugby is very significant in my life,” explains the man who went on to become a World Cup winner.

“It wasn’t because I wanted to grow up and be a rugby player. It was because I needed to do something to change the course of my life.

“Rugby is what got me smiling again. Mum and dad too. Until then there was so much anger, pain, grief, why us? Why no justice? So many different things.

“I walked into Wasps, no-one knew me, no-one knew what had happened to our family, no-one asked any questions. All they did was welcome me with open arms.”

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“I don’t mind a bit of pain”

Dallaglio will remember that when he climbs on his Trek bike this weekend and gives himself a mountain to climb – plenty of them, in fact – to raise funds for teenagers caught in the same life rut he found himself in.

Two decades after lifting the Webb Ellis Cup, he says he takes even greater pride from the work of his charity, Dallaglio RugbyWorks, set up to improve the lives of kids, aged 14 to 17, excluded from mainstream education.

“It’s an area no-one really knows much about because they don’t want to,” adds Dallaglio. “It’s so dark, so bad and so broken that it’s very hard to fix. Actually, it’s not that hard, people just ignore it.”

He says he could not do that, partly because he knew how far a little help got him at that age, partly because turning his back on a challenge is not in the DNA of the 88-time capped England and Lions number eight.

“Everyone advised me not to go near it because it’s tough, but that was a red rag to a bull,” he laughs. “I don’t mind a bit of pain to get where I want to get.

“The two things you can guarantee in life are that we all arrive in this world with nothing and we’re all going to leave with nothing.

“In between everyone chases health, wealth and happiness, but the most important gift in life is giving – and giving back, in my opinion.”

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Charity mission

Shepherds Bush-born Dallaglio contends that no young person is born bad, “just born into different circumstances”.

The mission of his charity is to improve the odds for those disadvantaged. Using rugby as a hook, it works to ensure kids excluded from school are not excluded from society.

“I’m not in it for myself,” insists the 51-year-old. “In fact, it’s come at great personal cost to myself as every minute of the day I spend working for the charity is time I’m not spending working for myself.

“I have had my own financial issues, my own problems with finding the right jobs and that sort of thing. But delivering our programme with an 85% success rate gives me enormous pride.”

To begin with Dallaglio RugbyWorks would turn up free of charge at schools. Now, the schools pay for it.

“We’re not an after-schools club,” he points out. “Our programme is built into the curriculum. We are there every week because what these young people don’t need are people who turn up just once then leave. They’ve had that all their lives, which is why they are where they are.”

On average 102 young people every week are excluded from school. The lifetime cost to the state of permanently excluding one person is estimated to be £370,000.

“The trend is that these kids get excluded and end up in a pupil referral unit where their chances of any degree of success are almost non-existent,” says Dallaglio.

“The drop-off goes from 64% getting five GCSEs or more in mainstream education to 4% among those excluded. Even worse, 63% end up in prison where 66% go on to re-offend because the prison system is completely bust.

“The majority, if not all of the young kids the charity works with, are born into chaos,” he adds. “They might have no parents or bad parents, be around drug abuse, violent abuse or generational unemployment. Quite a lot of them are primary carers in their own home.

“What they need is help and that’s where we come in. What rugby does is recognise difference. Actually, it celebrates difference, brings different people together. Some of our alumni actually work for us now.”

Given this success, Dallaglio only wishes the Government would get involved and roll it out nationally.

“Could it be done? Absolutely no doubt,” he says. “Start small, think big, scale fast. Schools are paying for it because they know it’s working. They’re trying to find ways to reallocate their budgets to fund things like us.

“Rugby is a good catalyst, but don’t limit it. There’s also the Rio Ferdinand Foundation, Dame Kelly Holmes Trust and Track Academy doing similar things. We are a handful of successfully proven delivery organisations making life-changing differences. I’d put it all together and roll it out.”

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Making a difference

For now, in what is an ultra competitive charity sector, Dallaglio RugbyWorks needs to find £1.7 million a year to deliver its programme.

Which is why its founder is bound for Rome, ready to lead a 100-strong group, including his World Cup captain Martin Johnson, on the gruelling 900-mile Dallaglio Cycle Slam ride.

“I get as much pride from what we are achieving as I did from winning a World Cup,” he says. “But it’s such a big problem, such a big issue, that there’s no time to rest on laurels.

“Give yourself a pat on the back if you want, but I’m not doing it for my own ego. I’m doing it to try to shine a light on what is a huge issue which is not going away.

“In fact if anything, it is getting much, much worse. Because nothing’s been done to change it.”

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