Rongotai College boasts one of the strongest Junior Basketball programs in New Zealand. In recent times their premier Juniors won the lower North Island Championships and the National 3×3 Championships. In 2010 the school’s gym burned to the ground in a Boxing Day fire! Matt Eagle is the Director of Basketball at the College and has enjoyed a long and extensive involvement with the sport.
When did your involvement with Rongotai basketball start?
The sport took off at the college in the late 1970s, under the coaching of Gareth Rapson, a former NZ Rep whom I describe as the Father of Rongotai Basketball. He pretty quickly lead us to two 5thplace finishes at Nationals in ’78 and ‘79, then we took out the National title in 1980. I was lucky enough to Captain that team and the lessons you learn from those experiences have lifelong value. We’ve scaled the highest level of play, so we know how to do it, even if it may take time to get back there. We know what we are looking for.
My basketball knowledge grew further as I played a couple of years on the Wellington Saints ’82 – ‘83, then played and coached 2nd Division with the Morehu Club and also coached their women’s team to the National club title in 1984 and back to the Final again in 1985. Those were rich experiences as a player which have helped me as a coach.
Tell us about you early coaching success at Rongotai?
I started coaching Rongotai teams immediately after leaving school. I had joined Gareth on the teaching staff and we went on a decade long journey of success – including five Wellington Premier Senior titles plus two Junior titles and a few near misses as well (lost 3 Senior finals and 4 junior!).
Players of note during this run included Tall Blacks Chris Tupu (Rongotai Junior Head Coach) and Troy McLean (Scots College Senior Head Coach), Gareth’s three sons (Brook, Lee and Scott), Kemara Fuimaono (father of the Samuels boys currently starring at St Pats Town and Scots) and also Sione Faumuina (Kiwi league player).
Things fell away for a while I understand. Why did this happen?
Our successes had been based on having that consistent mix. Having two fulltime teachers who are coaching every day, especially at lunchtimes, makes a huge difference to the rate players can move along the learning curves and we were fortunate to have had that when Gareth and I were the lead duo, alternately sharing the driving of Seniors and Juniors (and we also had American Angelo Hill on staff for a year in 1996). Critically, we were singing from the same page of our coaching philosophy and strategy. I think lots of schools struggle to build strong programmes in that respect, of really having a clear coaching philosophy and playing style. They manage to recruit willing volunteers to coach but don’t always maintain a continuity of the developmental experience for their athletes.
Once Gareth retired from teaching in 1997 we struggled to maintain that consistency. We managed our last Premier title in 1998. Then we had a succession of Junior coaches and while we always had talent, we couldn’t quite harness it as successfully. The rise of professional rugby probably shifted the focus of some students away from basketball too. The most frustrating part of the period of decline were local families choosing to enrol their sons at other schools whose programmes were on the rise, when we might have reasonably expected they would naturally come to Rongotai. That was part of a changing landscape in school sports in NZ.
Chris Tupu & Zico Coronel have joined the coaching staff. What do they bring?
Chris is a legend of New Zealand basketball and he brings a wealth of experience as both an international player and coach. Zico has a superb technical appreciation of the game and his experiences on the Saint’s coaching staff, and in working with national age-group teams, integrate pretty smoothly with Chris’ talents.
How has basketball changed in Wellington?
The game hasn’t changed really. It’s still basketball. But the offensive skills of some young players are now simply amazing, as is the general level of athletic ability. That’s probably no different to most sports, though. However, while the offensive skills are impressive, I don’t think we’ve seen a balanced development of defensive skills and strategy. Game scores are much higher now and I simply think that too much time is spent by coaches on just one aspect of the game, rather than really developing players’ ability to keep offensive players under control. I think that’s indicative of lack of sharing of knowledge amongst coaches or the lack of a forum to do that in.
However, the profile of the sport has sky-rocketed due to the success of the Breakers, the growing competitiveness of the Tall Blacks, and the Steven Adams effect, of course. So that’s lead to more kids picking up the game at a younger age, which translates to more kids with good ball skills at a young age. The ability of Kiwi players to gain US college scholarships is more widespread and that helps build strong pathways too.
In Wellington, the move into the ASB Sports Centre has made everyone feel good about playing and it’s brought Friday nights to life in a visible and exciting way. The dream is to have all 12 courts at ASB fully equipped for basketball, then we could shift the Junior divisions in there also.
Rongotai are the North Island and Junior 3×3 champs? Tell me about these wins?
The Junior 3X3 tournament is pretty new, it’s only been running for three years, so winning the title is exciting, particularly as it was in Auckland where we probably aren’t well known as a college.
The lower North Island Junior title is a really strong indicator of where our programme is at in relation to the rest of the country. This has always been a really tough region as there are a lot of very strong basketball programmes in our region with great coaches who have been working their craft for long periods. I would expect our junior success would translate into the Senior ranks in the next couple of years. It’s really satisfying to see the programme gaining strength from these successes, as it validates many years of effort that have been invested in keeping it afloat when the wins were much harder to come by.
Who are the leading players in the junior program at present?
To win premiership titles in Wellington and the Lower North Island in 2015, and to win the 3×3 Junior Nationals and be unbeaten thus far in 2016, you have to have significant athletes leading the way. Ezrah Vaigafa is a member of the NZ Under 16 “A” team. Jaylin To’o went close to gaining a spot in that squad to. Te Hoera Sullivan and Reon Paul are superb athletes. Charlie Symon, Evander Rongotaua-Tere and Zach Campbell-Smith are really promising as well.
How do you maintain this momentum?
We always complete a table projecting our likely squads, looking ahead 3-4 years and also including those who have left school, so that we can consider meeting their needs as well. That’s a basic example of the detailed thinking which helps build a complete programme. We know most of the Year 8 students already enrolled at the college for next year and have started doing developmental work with them. We have a legitimate Senior B team again, with mostly Year 11 players and that’s a valuable team where young seniors get to build their confidence. We’re now seeing the sons of previous players entering our school and we are confident they will contribute to the proud legacy of basketball at Rongotai, just like their fathers.
Note: Rongotai College run their own leagues for adults (men and women) – the Rongotai Flight League (RFL) and a youth league for their development teams – Flight League Youth (FLY).
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