This week Bill Carne visited Neyland Judo Club to talk to Black Belt holder Craig Bennett about his aspirations, and about a decade of rugby as a hooker with Neyland RFC . . .

CRAIG Bennett is known to all at Neyland Judo and Rugby clubs as ‘Wiggy’ in response to his bald head but it is typical of his nice nature that he chuckles about his nickname and says he doesn’t mind in the least.

But put him on the judo mat at Neyland Judo Club and you would quickly see why he is already a judo Black Belt First Dan who is setting his sights in Second Dan status in the near future – and why he came through a decade of life in the front row with Pembrokeshire’s All Blacks rugby team.

Because Craig has grit and determination aplenty, is able to focus on challenges he sets himself, as well as being a valued team member.

This is never more evident than at the judo club, where he not only trains very hard for future competitions ‘up the line’ which he has to compete in to pick up points for his promotion to Second Dan, but sets an example to aspiring young judoka and is more than happy to help head coach Damon McGarvie with the classes for participants from five years upwards, which take place before the senior sessions.

Small wonder then that coach McGarvie told us,

“’Wiggy’ is a tremendous asset to our club because less experienced judoka look up to him and his hard work sets the tone for their attitude to our sport.

“He has the ability to show them how to take part well and has a sense of fun which he injects into play sessions that start our training with them, which they love.

“On top of all that, he is very strong in competitive mode and I will be delighted for him when he achieves his Black Belt Second Dan.”

Craig started his involvement with Neyland Judo Club as a nipper of eight and he met Bill McGarvie, who ran the club then and, along with wife Joyce, gave him a warm welcome.

"I really enjoyed it right from the start," Craig admitted, "because my school pals Delme Bateman and Gareth Hein also went along.

"At nine I had my first competition in Newtown and equally as exciting then was passing a grading to achieve a new coloured belt after I started out on yellow and had reached green belt by the time I was 12.

But then going out with friends became an attraction and Craig also started his interest with rugby so that he eventually left judo until he returned over a decade later when he was 28.

He started out with Neyland RFC after a short spell in goal with Neyland Football Club as a goalkeeper - and readily admits that he wasn't the greatest shot-stopper in the history of the game.

"And then I went along to the Athletic Ground to watch Neyland Seconds play against Tenby and the All Blacks were a man short so I got roped in to play hooker.

"I thought it would be easy but I had a right tanking and it got so bad we had to ask for uncontested scrums - but I really enjoyed the hurly burly of the front row and had a season in the second team where I was well looked after in the front row by Robert John and Dean Fellowes, as well as by Lalo Tamilia and Mark 'Gonzo' Richards elsewhere.

Tony Huddlestone was the first team coach the next season and he showed his faith in me by picking for the first XV. Matthew Williams was captain and there were good players like Chris and Tony Busby, Steve Evans and others to make up for my inexperience.

"That was the start of ten years of first team play which I enjoyed, with great supporters who cheered us on.

"I remember scoring a rare try against Tenby where I only had to fall over the line, but by about ten o'clock that evening some of the old boys in the club had convinced me that I had scored from a 30-metre run where I threw in a couple of dummies and a sidestep for good measure!"

But then he started finding it getting harder to recover after some of the tough matches and so made an important decision in his life.

"I didn't want to be a couch potato so I decided I would give judo another try and I was immediately made welcome by Damon McGarvie, who had taken over from his dad Bill and was equally as nice but just as unforgiving if he thought were weren't training as hard as we might.

"I had to go back to senior orange belt to restart my judo but I worked really hard to get through my green and blue belts. It was tough work and I ached after each session, but not quite in the same way as I did in rugby.

"I achieved my brown belt in January 2012 and it provided the stimulus for gaining my Black Belt First Dan in August of the same year. It was a real challenge because you need to accumulate 100 points from fights in competitions, with 10 points awarded for each win against someone of the same level.

"I really had to travel around and eventually I succeeded in Rochdale where I needed two wins to reach my target - and I achieved four wins out of five fights so I actually came home with 120 points!"

Craig was understandably thrilled to reach his goal and within a short time he received his specially-embroidered Black Belt from Damon McGarvie in a presentation at the club - and as club tradition demands, as soon as he had placed it around his waist he had to suffer the dubious pleasure of being thrown on the mat by every member of the club in attendance!

So now the next challenge for Craig is to achieve his Second Dan and he picked up the first 20 points in the British Martial Arts 33 competition before taking part in the Welsh Closed in Cardiff and won the 100kgs class, winning all of his fights to take the gold medal - but points aren't awarded in these open classes

Craig is continuing to work hard, however, and is full of praise for the support he receives.

"My wife Michelle is a great help and understands when I have to go off on weekends to fight, leaving her to look after our children Isobel (4) and Kyle (2), both of whom I hope will take up judo when they are older but I won't push them."

"Then there's Damon McGarvie as a top coach and his parents Bill and Joyce are still there for us, whilst Barry Watson and Mark Guest are other judoka who are great to work with in training.

Ask Craig about ambitions and he will immediately say to achieve Black Belt status but it is a fair bet that once he climbs that mountain he will look to gain his coaching qualifications because he clearly has an affinity with the youngsters in the club - and he would enjoy helping his own kids to gain enjoyment out of taking part at Neyland Judo Club.