One of Europe’s most accomplished jiu-jitsu figures, Darragh O’Conaill will be leading Team UK & IRE at the 3rd Edition of the Polaris Squads tournament, an event set to take place on July 17th in Southampton, England, streamed on UFC Fight Pass.
An IBJJF European Open No-Gi Champion, Darragh is also the founder and leader of the East Coast Jiu-Jitsu Academy, a gym set in Dublin, Ireland, and one of the top grappling hubs in Europe. Sadly, grappling has come to a complete halt since March 2020(!) in O’Conaill’s home country, as explained by the black belt in a recent interview with BJJ Heroes: “Ireland has experienced the longest lockdown in the World. To this day everything is still closed, only at the start of June will things begin to open up. March of 2020 we closed our doors, we were allowed to open for July and August, but come September we were closed AGAIN and have been since then,” said O’Conaill.
Making the best of a bad situation, Darragh opted to move to Brazil, arriving in Rio de Janeiro midway through February 2021, settling in Copacabana’s Fight Zone Academy, where he’s had the opportunity to train with top grappling talents such as Jonata Gomes, Dudu Granzotto, and Gabriela Fechter. O’Conaill has also made regular visits to the famous Cantagalo social project, a workgroup led by Sandro Vieira and Douglas Rufino (Trator), as well as Rodrigo Totti’s Carlson Gracie gym in Leme. But the main reason for Darragh’s stay in Brazil wasn’t solely the quality of the training.
Despite being the 3rd country in the world with the most reported COVID19 cases, and the second with the most C19 related deaths, life in Brazil has carried on with much fewer restrictions than those experienced in Europe or in the majority of North America. This freedom experienced by Brazilians means the tournament scene is still vibrant in the country, an approach Darragh saw as a great opportunity to relive his love for competition:
“The ability to compete so regularly here has been one of the best parts of this trip. In Ireland, there is no high-level competition, myself and the team need to fly around Europe almost weekly and regularly to the USA to get good opposition. This is obviously extremely costly and tiring. Also, nowadays I have a lot of responsibility as a coach. My team has grown a lot and at nearly every event I need to coach a large number of students.” O’Conaill explained. “Here in Rio I only need to drive down the street each weekend and I will have a minimum of 3 matches to win Gold. Each tournament has quality opposition whether it’s a big or small event. I also can focus completely on myself here. It’s a unique time that I can be selfish and feel like an athlete again. Something I honestly never thought would be possible and a feeling I will probably never experience again. Because of this, I’m trying to compete as much as possible. It’s a strange situation, my academy at home is suffering and there is a lot of bad, but I’ve managed to make the most of it and keep evolving my Jiu-Jitsu. Grateful to be here for sure!”
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The long stay in Brazil has also served O’Conaill well in preparing the talented Irishman for the upcoming Polaris Squads tournament, arguably the biggest professional jiu-jitsu event Europe has held since the start of the year (check the full card here). When it comes to the clash ahead, Darragh – who will be the Team UK & IRE captain against Team USA – is under no illusion as to which squad is the favorite:
“I believe the USA team will be the strong favorites on paper.” O’Conaill explained, extending on the matter when asked if he sees any weaker links in his opposing team: “I would hesitate to try to proclaim they have any particular weaknesses. The team throughout is full of strong grapplers a lot of which are familiar with the sub-only format. But, I believe we have what it takes to pull off the upset. As a team, we just need to back each other and put in our best performance on the night. If we do that I believe it’s there for the taking. Most people probably pegged Europe as favorites over us also [at Polaris Squads inaugural event] and we got through that one! Looking forward to the challenge and I know for sure the rest of the team are too. It will be a night to remember for sure.”
Although a very physical sport where athleticism is one of the key ingredients for victory, jiu-jitsu is also a game of strategy. Given Team UK & Ireland’s advantage on that front, having competed twice under the Polaris Squads ruleset, it would be commonplace to see this as an advantage for Darragh’s team, an assumption he disagrees with: “After my experience in the first event, I feel it’s very difficult to be strategic,” O’Conaill said unceremoniously. “Of course there are match ups that stylistically certain people would prefer to get, but it’s almost impossible to predict who will fight who because each team is constantly making decisions as to who will fight next and different people are winning matches. I think the best thing we can do is decide who matches up best with who and if the opportunity arises we can put people in for those matchups. But, more importantly, all of us just need to fight our best and believe we can beat whoever is in front of us on the night.”
As the Republic of Ireland prepares to re-open next month, Darragh hopes to return to his home country and finish his Polaris camp in the comfort of his own mats, with his students, many of which are big names in the sport’s international circuit. Names like Ffion Davies, Marcus Phelan, Ellis Younger, Richard Bukovskan, and Shane Fishman, to name a few.