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Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with Neil Best

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I embrace my rival, but only to strangle him - Neil Best

The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be

It wasn’t so long ago that England head coach Eddie Jones was even more unpopular, not for results but for training methods – for the use of martial arts at camps. At a 2016 training camp in Brighton during judo, Wasps flanker Sam Jones suffered a broken leg and Anthony Watson a fractured jaw. They both missed the Autumn internationals, and sadly for Sam he never made a full recovery and was forced to retire earlier this year.

But even with Eddie’s madness, the risk and the danger, it didn’t manage to put me off. Earlier this week I experienced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at first hand – to see what it could bring to professional rugby. And in truth the answer was an awful lot.

Welcomed by Brendan Foong of the Gentle Art Academy on Singapore’s east coast, I had full-on session of instruction and sparing. What impressed me most was just how successfully much smaller guys could use technique to gain the upper hand. There is a controlled efficiency in BJJ that I think rugby could really benefit from.

The Gentle Art is one of the most successful clubs in Singapore, and they cater for a wide range of ages and abilities – from beginners as young as four or five years of age right through to competition level adults. And I got to train with some of their best coaches.

When I played professionally we never used martial arts training – a bit of coached wrestling at Northampton was the closest.  And whilst we had to work hard to manage the disappointment of not getting to the ring with Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks – it was felt within the playing group, that individually we benefitted from the physical and technical aspects of wrestling.

Like wrestling, BJJ is a ground sport, with many contests ending in technical submission holds such as arm bars. The focus is very much on efficiency, technique and fighting on the floor. It’s about maximum impact from minimum effort. And after over an hour of rigorous training, I could see how useful some Jiu-Jitsu techniques could be in tackling, a maul or at the breakdown.

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Maybe more frequently than some other players, I was the victim of on-field unprovoked assaults. And in doing little more than managing those situations on behalf of myself, or occasionally a vulnerable teammate, I gained a rather false reputation for enjoying some of the more physical elements of the game. Yet even as a natural sporting pacifist – I found Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu a fantastic experience and got a real buzz from it.

My old team Ulster has lacked an abrasive edge up front in recent seasons. And when new chief Dan McFarland eventually does arrive in Northern Ireland, he could do a lot worse than invite Brendan and his team to Belfast for a few weeks of pre-season. The players would enjoy the physical nature of the training, and it would improve their technique and on-field presence.

If you look hard enough you can always find something at which you’re a natural, and for me in Jiu-Jitsu it was the neck compression -who’d have thought restricting someone’s blood flow could be so much fun?

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I embrace my rival, but only to strangle him - Neil Best