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Winning with Cougars all Vague is focused on

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Rhys Vague is taking a wait and see approach to where the next stop in his professional career will take him, but his sole focus is on helping the Cockburn Cougars achieve success in the NBL1 West before he worries about anything else.

Vague is back at the Cougars to play this NBL1 West season for the first time since 2014 and he’s had a strong start over the first two games in the win over Mandurah and loss to South West with 21.5 points and 9.0 rebounds a game.

He has joined the Cougars in 2024 on the back of his return season to the NBL at the South East Melbourne Phoenix having spent the previous three years playing in Japan on the back of a four-time championship winning stint at the Perth Wildcats.

His arrival is a significant coup for the Cougars this season and his sole focus is trying to help bring success back to Cockburn even though his future beyond that is now up in the air after recently parting ways with the Phoenix ahead of NBL25.

Immediate focus with eye on the future

Vague is thinking about nothing right now but doing all he can to perform for the Cougars and help Cockburn be as successful as positive. In turn he feels by doing that it will give him the best chance to land somewhere he wants to beyond this NBL1 season.

“I think I’ve been around long enough that everyone knows what I’m capable of and what I would bring to a team, but obviously basketball is a business and I know that like everyone does,” Vague said.

“These sort of things happen and now that it has happened, I’m just focusing on this NBL1 season and trying to win a championship with the Cougars.

“If you do that, then good things usually follow along with it and helping a team win makes more of a statement than anything.

“So you can’t be too off with the fairies worried about all that other stuff and just focusing on the job at hand is what’s most important right now for me, and then whatever comes after then it will be what it is.

“I back myself in the situation and I have good people around me who will help me so I think it will all work out fine.”

First up win at home

The Cougars started the season with a strong first up win at Wally Hagan Stadium against the Mandurah Magic before things didn’t quite go to plan last Friday night on the road to the South West Slammers.

But Vague liked the signs in that first up win and is now looking for them to bounce back at home again on Saturday against the Eastern Suns.

“There was a lot of positives to take out of that first game and a lot for us to work on at the same time,” he said.

“We’re still just trying to gel as a team and I know myself, I’ve only been training with the team for a couple of weeks fully now on the court and we’ve still got a couple of guys to work in who have been missing through a variety of reasons.

“For us to have that turbulent start, it was good to get a first up win and put 100 on the board and keep Mandurah under 20 a quarter. There were a lot of positives to take out of it but we can still obviously grow a lot more as a group.”

Observations coming back to Cougars

Vague always knew that he wanted to come to play at the Cougars at some point but when he was playing in Japan, it just wasn’t possible to have an off-season playing back in the NBL1 anywhere because a season can go for as long as 10 months if you go deep into the playoffs.

But coming off an NBL season back at South East Melbourne, Vague was always going to play NBL1 basketball somewhere in the country in 2024 and couldn’t think of anywhere better than back with the Cougars.

And he was more than excited by what he first saw when he first arrived and saw his team on the court and now since joining them at practice and playing the first couple of games, he is excited for what 2024 could end up looking like.

“It’s been great coming back. The guys really work hard and Claydo has us running a tight ship which from all accounts is what was needed to be done,” Vague said.

“It’s been really impressive for me to just be able to come in and see the professionalism of the group, and how the boys are getting after it one through 20.

“We’ve got a lot of guys on the roster and everyone is competing for spots, and no one can feel safe in having their spot for the next week because there are so many guys here trying to push the pace and get their chance.

“From all reports that’s something Cockburn has been missing for a while to have that depth, but it seems to me the whole club is heading in the right direction and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

Playing at fast pace both ways

A big focus for this Cougars team of 2024 is to play at a high intensity and to push the pace.

That’s an obvious goal on the offensive end, but what it means defensively is that they want to apply full-court pressure as much as possible, turn the heat on the opposition and try to rush and pressure them into ball handling errors and take them out of their system.

Vague is more than happy to be part of a team playing that way and his confidence with the depth the Cougars have that it has a good chance of proving successful too.

“Our identity is playing at a fast pace both ways so that means picking up 94-feet defensively from one through the five,” Vague said.

“So if their five man takes the ball out, our five man has to be up there the whole way too. Not many teams do that and basketball has generally shifted to being a halfcourt game and there’s not many traps run anymore and the pressure isn’t really there full court because of how good the pressure is.

“But I think if you can put five men out there who are all on the same page trying to get up and in all the way through, and you rotate guys through the bench to stay fresh then I think it’s something that can work very well for us this year. Hopefully it’s something that we can do that nobody else really does.”

Impressions coming back to play NBL1

The last time Vague played in the league was when it was still the SBL back in 2017 at the Warwick Senators.

In fact, they were still known at Stirling at the time and he can’t help but be impressed with how far the league has now come under the NBL1 West banner as he adjusts to life back home in 2024.

“I’m super excited and everyone I’ve spoken to has said the exact same thing that the league has continued to grow year on year,” Vague said.

“This year is the best it’s ever been in my opinion with so many guys from NBL playing in every single conference, quality imports are coming out and staying too which is a big thing.

“I think once imports get here and get the feel of the league and playing FIBA basketball, and living out here, some super talented guys like to hang around rather than move on to somewhere else.

“That’s a testament to how good the league is getting and before guys would move on to bigger leagues for more money in Europe, but a lot of them want to stay here now which is a great thing.”

Thinking about the future

While it’s only natural to be thinking about the future too and where he will be plying his trade beyond this NBL1 season, what gives Vague comfort is knowing that he’s more than open to any offers.

Having now played at both the Wildcats and Phoenix, he would be more than happy to embark on another NBL stint but after three years in Japan, he’d be open to heading back there but he would also be keen to find out what playing in Europe is like.

Vague also has a UK passport which leaves playing in that part of the world open as well, which helps him not feel like he needs to hit the panic button and can just focus on what’s immediately in front of him with the Cougars.

“Absolutely there are still things I want to try and there are lots of avenues I can still go down with my career,” Vague said.

“It’s comforting to know that I’ve been overseas and have enjoyed my time there because a lot of people go away and might not enjoy it, or are not sure about it and might not go.

“But I’ve been there now and know what it’s like and what to expect so I’m open to going to back to Japan or trying somewhere new. I’m just more excited to see what happens and where I might end up once this NBL1 season is done.”

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