Four-time NBL champion returning home to Cougars

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Rhys Vague has won four NBL championships, had three years in Japan and played for the Australian Boomers, but it’s the Cockburn Cougars where he honed his basketball craft and he can’t wait to now return for the 2024 NBL1 West season.

The earliest basketball memories Vague has are of playing at Wally Hagan Stadium, he made his SBL debut with the Cougars in 2013 and now 11 years later, he will make his return to Cockburn for his first time playing back home since 2017.

It’s been a remarkable career journey for Vague since those developing days at Cockburn which including playing 25 SBL games with the Cougars across 2013 and 2014.

His first NBL opportunity came in the 2014/15 season firstly as a development player and he would end up becoming a fully rostered player and in his 79-game career at the Perth Wildcats he would win championships in 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020.

After that 2020 championship, played in Japan for the first time with the Kagawa Five Arrows which is where he continued to play for three seasons while in the off-season played for the Australian Boomers in FIBA World Cup qualifiers throughout 2022 and 2023.

He has now returned to the NBL this season and is in the middle of his season with the South East Melbourne Phoenix, but it’s that desire to return home for an off-season, and to play with the Cougars again that was an itch he just had to scratch.

“It’s something that I’ve sort of flirted with doing for a little while and then this past off-season I got lucky enough to spend a little bit of time back home in Perth, and Cockburn welcomed me back with open arms,” Vague said.

“They let me workout down there at the courts every day and with some of their assistants as well who put me through some workouts. It brought back some old memories for me and then when Ty reached out I felt like the timing was right once the NBL season is done.

“After playing in Japan for three years where you play 60 games a season, you don’t really want to play in the off-season and need a break, but an NBL season is a bit shorter so it was more enticing to play in the off-season. So I figured there was no place better than playing at Cockburn.”

Feeling like a homecoming

After his last season in Japan and before heading to Melbourne to begin pre-season training at the Phoenix, Vague enjoyed some time back home in Perth and got to know Wally Hagan Stadium again, which is where he knew his passion was there to play again at the Cougars.

“It does feel like coming home,” he said.

“When I was working out down there in the off-season even though the stadium looks a lot different, it still has that home feel to when I was playing my juniors down there from under-8s onwards.

“It still had the same feel and a lot of the same people are still around so it’s just a really cool thing that I’m able to do to come back.”

Cougars team coming together

Vague is also excited for the team he is going to be part of at the Cougars for the 2024 NBL1 West season as well under new coach Mark Clayden.

He can’t wait to play with Gavin Field once more and to be there for his last season along with reconnecting with Seva Chan, playing alongside fellow new signing Hunter Clarke and then the strong band of emerging Cougars talent coming through the same pathway he did.

“Gav is a legend of the league and will go down as one of the best players to ever play in it so being able to play in his last season is huge,” Vague said.

“He was there for my first couple of seasons that I played in the SBL which is pretty awesome and I was lucky enough to work out with Seva in the off-season, and he and I go way back as well.

“I’m excited for it and the team being put together is really promising with a lot of Aussies, which is really cool.

“Especially to have a lot of Cockburn juniors is the main thing for me and having a lot of kids there who are homegrown and have gone through that pipeline of the development through juniors and WABL is a really cool thing to see.

“Because I’ve been in those shoes as well and was doing the exact same thing I’ve kinda got a soft spot for guys like that so that’s going to be really exciting to be able to play alongside those guys.”

Embracing the time back home

The last time Vague spent an extended period back home was his last season at the Wildcats in 2019/20 and his last SBL season was at the Warwick Senators way back in 2017.

So that means he can’t wait for the chance to embrace everything about being back home for several months both in terms of the basketball at the Cougars, but also just reconnecting with family and friends, and getting that feeling of being home.

“It hasn’t really hit me yet because I haven’t done it in so long, but it’s definitely something I’m super pumped for because I’ve got a lot of friends and family back there, and it’s something I haven’t done in ages,” he said.

“When I was there I was hanging around Freo where I grew up so just to be able to do that again and to be able to get work in at the same time, and enjoy playing with Cockburn, is really cool.

“This off-season when I was home I wasn’t playing at all so was just counting down the days until I went to Melbourne, but now I’ll be focused on being home and I’ll enjoy it a bit more I think. That’s really exciting for me and I’m really pumped for that.”

Settling into life in Melbourne

After spending the past three years in Japan, it’s been an adjustment period for Vague to firstly get used to living in Melbourne for the first time and then getting used to a new club, coach, teammates and playing style, and the difference in play again in the NBL.

“It’s definitely been a bit of an adjustment period getting used to playing a different style of basketball again, but the club has been super welcoming of me over here in Melbourne,” Vague said.

“I’m super appreciative of that and obviously the guys I’m playing with here are world class basketballers like Creeky and Alan, and all those guys, and it’s been a really good experience to be able to play alongside those guys and more or less learn a different role and style of play.

“So that’s been really cool and the good thing is we’ve still got half a season to play and I’m excited to attack that to see if we can make some noise as a team at the back end of the year.”

Coming off big win, Throwdown to come

In the short term, Vague is fresh off a significant influence in the Round 10 win for South East Melbourne Phoenix against the defending champion Sydney Kings where he had 12 points, and now he can’t wait for this Thursday night’s Throwdown with Melbourne United.

“Throwdowns have got a real exciting feel to them and even the basketball portion of the city really gets buzzy for it,” Vague said.

“That was a bit unexpected for me and I didn’t realise after playing in Perth you just have the Wildcats and don’t have a team to have a rivalry with, but it’s a real thing this rivalry with the two Melbourne teams.

“Unfortunately we’ve lost the last two against them so we’re a bit hungrier for this one and if we can pull this one off after a good win against Sydney it will cap off a good week of basketball for us.”

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