Elite rugby players and coaches are always looking for an advantage over their competition. The Scottish rugby union’s coaching program, for example, runs a module that specifically focuses on innovative coaching strategies.
They ask coaches to questions things like, should you kick to touch inside your 22m line when you have a clear overlap out wide? Should you run the ball if you have 75% accuracy at reclaiming a high-ball.
Recent strategic innovations in the game have focused on the tackle area. It’s become commonplace for the defensive side to give up the ruck in favor of setting a full defensive line.
Today, though we’re discussing an off-field innovation that comes to our courtesy of Rugby League. The emergence of contact coaches and the use of Wrestling, Judo and most importantly Jiu Jitsu techniques to improve the speed of the tackle area. Why should rugby players train Jiu Jitsu? Read on young rugger.
BRIEF HISTORY OF BJJ
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a ground-based martial art that teaches practitioners to fights from their backs without the use of striking as a weapon. While other combat sports rely on the use of fists, elbows, knees, and feet in combination, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s (BJJ) ban on striking forces combatants to submit the opponent using a variety of ground-based maneuvers. The result is a sport that focuses on wrist, leg and body control to break down the opponent and force their submission.
BJJ is an offshoot of the traditional Japanese Jiu Jitsu. The Japanese form of the martial art is a derivative of ancient Judo. Judo was originally developed by Buddhist monks in Northern India as a way to subdue an opponent without killing them. The Japanese adopted and modified the artform to create Japanese Jiu Jitsu, and its practitioners sought to keep it a secret from the rest of the world. During the Taishō period, of the early 1900s, Japanese martial arts knowledge leaked out to every corner of the world.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was developed by Helio Gracie, the youngest brother of Carlos Gracie as a series of techniques designed to help him defeat his larger, stronger brother in Traditional Judo. Judo and Wrestling are both top-dominant martial arts which typically favor the largest and strongest athletes in the contest. Helio Gracie’s bottom-dominant style now immortalized as BJJ favors technique and leverage over brute strength.
BJJ is characterized by body control and submission maneuvers with a particular focus on the “guard” position which involves laying on one’s back and wrapping one’s legs around the opponent to restrict their movement. Jiu Jitsu players tend to be comfortable on their backs and train to regain their feet from this position using the opponent for leverage.
In the early 2000s, Australian Rugby League teams including the Melbourne Storm and later the Gold Coast Titans began experimenting with contact coaches whose job it was to improve the body control of rugby league players. As in Rugby Union, offensive pressure is very much determined by the speed of the breakdown in Rugby League. The faster you can clear the ball from the tackle area, the less time the defensive line has to get set and move forward. In Rugby League, this is exacerbated by the defensive line being pushed back 10m from the tackle. A fast “play the ball” means that the defense is often moving backward rather than forward when the next play begins. This is understandably, a huge advantage for the team in possession.
The Australian media were consistently critical of the Melbourne Storm during the 2000s for their use of what was termed the “Grapple Tackle.” When we think of a tackle, we mostly think about the collision of bodies. But in both forms of the game, there can be considerable time between that collision and what is considered the completion of the tackle. Rugby Union’s Law 15.4 states that “When a player tackles an opponent, and they both go to ground, the tackler must immediately release the tackled player.” See a video demonstration here. Rugby League has a similar Law Section 11, 2(a) which states that a tackle is effected “when he is held by one or more opposing players and the ball or the hand or arm holding the ball comes into contact with the ground.”
In practice, Rugby Union Referees have been given a mandate to strictly enforce Law 15.4 and will consistently penalize tackles who do not immediately release the tackled player. By contrast, Rugby League players are given slightly more leeway to remain on top of a tackled player. We posit that this is in part due to the NRL’s understanding that the defensive line needs to retreat 10m, and this requires a few seconds. Irrespective, it’s this in-between time that the Melbourne Storm focused on in their body control strategy.
The strategy was (and is) to force the tackled player to roll from their back to their front before effecting the play-the-ball. This movement takes valuable time and energy which is an advantage to the team defending. The controversy was that the Melbourne Storm trained their players to control the body of the tackled player by holding, twisting and pinning the head and neck of the opponent. For this, they employed the tactics of Wrestling and Judo religiously.
Wrestling and Judo teach top-dominant body control positions. As seen in the original development of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, smaller athletes need a way to compete against these techniques. With teams like the Melbourne Storm using neck and head control tactics, the NRL was eventually forced to outlaw the use of the grapple tackle to ensure player safety. But in the interim, several other NRL teams employed the use of BJJ coaches to nullify the effect of the grapple tackle.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu teaches many basic maneuvers which Rugby League players now utilize to regain their feet quickly. These include ways to get out from underneath a larger opponent and the progression to regain a standing position using the opponent’s strength. These strategies allow smaller athletes to escape from holds that would otherwise slow down the play-the-ball.
Being able to control how your opponent can move is a huge part of BJJ and an exceedingly useful skill in rugby union. The three key control point in BJJ are the hips, the shoulders, and the head. By applying pressure on these areas, BJJ players can force an opponent into a bad body position and an eventual submission.
Controlling the head – the head controls the spine. Wherever the head goes, the body will follow. In Jiu Jitsu, controlling the opponent’s head is easiest from a top dominant position (often referred to as side control). This position allows you to prevent your opponent from getting back to a kneeling or standing position. But “steering” an opponent’s head is also something that Jiu Jitsu players will attempt in standing or scrambling positions. By steering the opponent’s head, they’re unable to balance correctly; this will often lead to a more advantageous position for the player doing the steering.
Controlling the shoulders – either from the side control position or other ground positions, BJJ teaches players that once they gain a top position, they should control the opponent’s shoulders. This shoulder control prevents the opponent from regaining their feet and keeps them flat on their back (unable to roll). Your shoulders are also a useful tool in BJJ. The shoulder is often used to place pressure on the opponent’s head and neck as part of controlling their head. Pressure on the neck draws the opponent’s attention away from other areas as they attempt to restore breathing.
Controlling the hips – this is perhaps the most relevant part of Jiu Jitsu for rugby players. As in rugby, a Jiu Jitsu player’s hips are a critical tool for controlling their direction. Rugby players are taught from a young age to focus their attention on the ball carrier’s hips, because… “the hips don’t lie.” In other words, watching an opponent’s hips is the best way to know what direction they will move in.
Whether you’re trying to take down, or keep down an opponent, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu aims to control their hips as much as possible. From the guard position, pressure on the hips can force the opponent to release their leg control of your waist. From the half guard, hip pressure can allow you to pass their guard into the highly sought after a “mount” position. The hips are also the focus of many different takedown techniques borrowed from Judo and employed in MMA.
In rugby, controlling the ball carrier’s hips gives you a huge amount of leverage to effect the tackle and get the opponent on their back. A tackled player who is face down on the ground can protect the ball from players on their feet using their body. However, if the tackler can position the ball carrier on their back, this exposes the ball to “poachers” in a standing position who can then compete for possession. Note that the tackler is still required to release and roll away immediately. But controlling the ball carrier’s hips on the way down can give your teammates a greater ability to steal possession back for your team once the tackle is effected.
Rugby is a game played by people on their feet, end of story. One prop I played with suggested quite adamantly that… “It takes absolutely no talent to stand up.” But it’s not that simple when you’ve either been tackled or cleaned out of a ruck, and you have a 255 lb brute laying on top of you. While most Brazilian Jiu Jitsu players are comfortable on their backs, they also recognize that this is a weak position in self-defense situations. As a result, BJJ players train to get back to their feet as quickly as possible from laying flat on their backs with pressure from an opponent on… you guessed it, their head, shoulders, and hips. In rugby, being able to get back to your feet quickly means an extra player in the defensive line. Training Jiu Jitsu can help rugby players get back to their feet and into the game.
When rugby players first start out in Jiu Jitsu, it’s tempting for them to utilize their superior strength to bench-press opponents off of them. Unfortunately, this seldom works against a player who is the same size or has the superior skill or both. In most cases, all you’ll accomplish by trying to brute-force your way off your back is to burn precious energy reserves. Instead, BJJ teaches players to use their arms and hips to create space underneath the opponent for an escape. This technique is known as “Shrimping” and is particularly useful in rugby if you have someone laying on top of you who is themselves pinned by another player’s weight. You’re not going to move all that bulk with your arms. Bridging with your hips, however, can often create enough space under your body for you to wriggle free and get back to your feet.
If body control is the ability to manipulate the position of your opponent in grappling or contact situations, body awareness is an understanding of your physical abilities and limitations. Do you have functional or straight-line strength? Can you control your breathing under pressure? Does your body bend and twist correctly? How do you react when you’re out-matched physically?
Jiu Jitsu practices will test your understanding of yourself. They demonstrate your areas of both weakness and strength. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re rolling. The open-mat format gives you the chance to learn and improve with virtually instant feedback from training partners who will help you grow.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu requires an entirely different kind of conditioning to rugby. You’re not going to be running the equivalent of 7 miles in an hour. But you may still be exhausted at the end of your training session. Many first-time BJJ players will start out with deficiencies in strength, speed, and stamina, but these can all be trained on the mat.
Even amateur rugby players will usually enter Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with an advantage in size and strength over their opponents. But at the same time, they will typically lack flexibility, core strength and body awareness.
BJJ is perfect for rugby players, especially as an off-season training protocol, as the movements require combinations of:
Right from the outset, Jiu Jitsu is a humbling experience. Without the technical knowledge, rugby players are at a significant disadvantage over more skilled opponents. You’re going to get tapped out. You’re going to get tapped out more than once. Maybe even more than once in a single round. The number of combinations of submissions is mind boggling. And you’ll likely be the victim of every single one before long. And that’s O.K. Rugby players are not usually well known for their humility. But there’s nothing so humbling as being choked out by someone half your size.
The question is, how will you react to this challenge? Will you learn, ask questions and grow as a competitor? Or will you be dissatisfied with not being the most physically dominant player in the game?
Jiu Jitsu teaches two kinds of patience. Short-term patience on the mat and within a round. And long-term patience that will require weeks, months and years of commitment and dedication to BJJ. There are mile markers along the way. Points at which you’ll feel you understand what’s going on and how to defend yourself. Another where you’ll begin to formulate attacks and control your opponent. But the learning curve lasts a lifetime, just like in rugby.
Within a round, you may find yourself in a compromised position where there are few good options. Getting out of that position isn’t going to happen instantly. It requires testing, setup, defense and control all of which take time. Sometimes, you’ll need to wait for a mistake or an opportunity presented by the opponent. Sometimes, you’ll need to perform step 1, step 2 and step 3 in order to effect your escape in step 4. As a top dominant player, effecting a submission requires you to obtain perfect body position and wear-down an opponent by applying pressure to the shoulders, head and neck. It takes time and patience, both to win and to not lose.
But you are going to lose. Consistently and often. That’s not easy for everyone. But for those that can put their ego aside, failure can be an excellent training tool. When you’re submitted with an arm bar, you have the chance to learn why it happened. Perhaps the greatest feature of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is that it gives you the opportunity to fail incredibly frequently. If you learn something every time you fail, you’re going to get better at Jiu Jitsu, at Rugby and at life.
With that, I need to get to an open mat session.