Double interview with Tom O’Neill-Thorne & Jannik Blair: “This is going to be the hardest and most competitive Asia Oceania Championships we’ve ever played in.”

The Asia Oceania Championships will begin next week in Thailand as the final spots for Tokyo 2020 are up for grabs. Ahead of the tournament, Rollt.’s Dylan Cummings spoke with Jannik Blair and Tom O’Neill-Thorne from the Aussie Rollers national team who also play domestically in Spain’s Division de Honour for Bidaideak Bilbao BSR. The duo elaborated on how they have been preparing for the upcoming competition.


How’s the season going at Bilbao?

Jannik: “The season’s going really well we’re 3-1, we feel like we could easily be 4-0 but the beauty of the Spanish league is that if you rock up and you don’t execute well, all the teams have the depth and ability to expose your weaknesses. This showcases the depth that the Division de Honour has as a mid-table team like Gran Canaria can beat one of the top four teams in the league. Every weekend you have to be ready to play and you have to have a well-rounded game which features lots of different styles of play to combat the opponent.”

Tom: “I think one of the strengths with our team is that this is the second year that the group has been together. We had a strong regular season last year and know that we have the fire power to challenge for the title this season. In the lead up to Christmas we just plan on building up that team chemistry and work out a few kinks and find rhythm as a group. I think it helps that we have several Spanish national team players on our squad, with the core group of our team training throughout the summer in the lead up to the European Championships. I missed the first two games of the season because of visa issues, but that didn’t affect the team, as they came into the games in form and the things that might’ve taken the first couple weeks to get used to that were already clicking.”


Have you been achieving the goals you set out for yourselves this season?

Jannik: “Yes, we’re well prepared this season. I think we’ve got a pretty good idea as a team as to how we all play. We know that we’ve got enough talent and skills to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves we just need to make sure we arrive at the big moments with everyone on the same page and playing within the same system.”

Tom: “I’ll say yes. I’ve only been in Bilbao for two weeks but even though we lost against Gran Canaria I still think that we’ve shown that we are one of the top clubs in Spain and as of right now I think we’re looking pretty good.”


How are you feeling about the upcoming Asia Oceania Championships?

Jannik: “Thankfully this year IWBF have changed the format of the competition with one group consisting of the six strongest teams being; Australia, Iran, Japan, South Korea, China and Thailand with the other group featuring teams who’s programmes are still developing. This allows us to play high-quality and competitive games throughout the tournament. The change in the format makes us a lot more excited for the tournament. All the teams competing will benefit a lot more from the tournament because everyone is going to be playing games at their level. The Aussie Rollers are coming into this tournament seeking redemption as we lost two games to Iran in a tournament in Japan three months ago. It’s a big motivator for us as everyone’s taken those losses on board and we’ve re-motivated ourselves by training harder and we’re excited to get an opportunity to redeem those loses.”

Tom: “I think the World Championships last year showcased how strong the Asia Oceania zone is becoming as ourselves and Iran battled it out for the bronze medal, and Japan finished undefeated after the group stage. This is going to be the hardest and most competitive Asia Oceania Championships we’ve ever played in. As Jannik said, in the past it’s been fairly one-sided for most games whereas now we’re finally getting the opportunity to be a more competitive region like the European Championships or Americas Cup. I’m really excited for the challenge.”


What have you done both individually and as a team to prepare for the championships?

Jannik: “The tournament we played in Japan three months ago was the first time that our full group had been back together since the World Championships 12 months prior. It was obvious that we had stayed at a standstill whilst Iran had progressed. This was a wakeup call for us. Between two recent losses to Iran, and the fact that the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics are now less than 12 months away, we have more than enough motivation to prepare for this tournament at 100%. On an individual level, we train every day, go to the gym and work on specific skills. We make sure that we’re paying attention to detail so that when it all boils down to the high-pressure moments we can perform because we’ve got the skillset required to do so.”

Tom: “After we lost to Iran three months ago there was a cultural shift in the squad. We felt like we had lost focus on the hard work we put in to achieve a bronze medal finish at the World Championships. We had an internal review as a whole team, and we’ve ramped up our intensity to another level. As a collective, teammates have been challenging each other in the group chat, consistently reminding us that we have to take it to the next level, as well as holding everyone accountable for their progression. Personally, I’ve been working on chair skills and fitness and I’m constantly trying to think of new ways to improve myself.”


Does playing for Bilbao factor into your preparations? If so, how does it?

Jannik: “Massively, we made a conscious decision that we wanted to be playing in Bilbao this season for multiple reasons. We’ve played here previously, we know the standard of training that’s involved, we’re aware of the calibre of the team that we have, and we know the standard of the games that we’ll be playing every weekend. The Division de Honour is the most competitive league in the world right now and we feel like our best preparation for Tokyo is to be playing in Bilbao. It’s going to play a huge part in our preparations, and I think it’s the best place for us to be.”

Tom: “I think in the lead up to a major tournament you need to feel as comfortable as possible. We’re definitely happy in Bilbao and we know that we can get a high level of training and also play in strong, competitive games each week. It’s also important to be comfortable off court as well, Bilbao is an incredible city to live in, with a lot of places to see and things to keep your mind occupied off the court.”


Who do you think will be your toughest competition at the tournament and why?

Jannik: “Japan and Iran are certainly our two biggest threats. Japan have put a lot of time and effort into their programme on the eve of hosting the Paralympic Games next year and their results are starting to show. They’re not physically the biggest team but they are one of the fastest teams to play against which is a change compared to playing against the physically dominant Iran.”

Tom: “The two teams that are going to be the toughest have been the toughest for a long time, that being Iran and Japan. The Iranian group coming through now predominantly feature players from the 2013 U23 World Championships which myself and Jannik both played in. They’ve got some great players and most of them play professionally in Turkey. Having beaten us three months ago in Tokyo, Iran are definitely going to be the favourites in the tournament. Japan are the same they’ve always been; one of the top teams in the zone and a rising force in the wheelchair basketball world. They have a lot of talented young guys coming through their programme, as well as some key world-class veterans.”


Other than qualifying for Tokyo are there any other goals you want to achieve at this tournament?

Jannik: “With every tournament that you play in there’s always a goal on the horizon. The goal of this tournament is to qualify for Tokyo, but we also want to continue to develop and improve our game style. We now know our starting five line-up but we also want to look at other line-ups to give us more options and depth. On a personal level, every time you represent your country you want to do it justice and honour the jersey that you’re wearing by performing at your best.”

Tom: “Anytime we get together as a group it’s extremely valuable for us because we know it doesn’t happen very often. We need to get on court together as much as possible and gel together as a team. While our primary goal is qualifying for Tokyo, we also want to establish our key rotations and combinations for the next ten months.”


Which teams are you most excited to play against at Tokyo?

Jannik: “I’m always excited to play against the USA, they have really strong basketball tradition and culture as do Australia. They have one of the strongest programmes in the world and to play against them is always an exciting prospect. Playing against GB is also super exciting, they are current World Champions and the core of their squad is young and will be around for a long time. Tom and I have been fortunate enough to play against those guys at U23 level and now at senior level. It’s exciting that the guys that we played against in our U23 tournaments are now the main protagonists at senior level.”

Tom: “I think playing against Spain will be a lot of fun because of how many Spanish national team players are our teammates at club level. It provides a healthy rivalry for us. Playing against either the defending World Champions in Great Britain, or the defending Paralympic champions in the USA would also be interesting, as we could see where we stack up against two of the best teams in the world.”


How would you describe each other’s styles of play?

Jannik: “Tom has an exciting game style, it’s the most enjoyable style for me to play alongside and always challenging to play against. He’s a very mobile player in offence and defence. I love playing alongside him in defence because we can play up the floor and take the game on by playing without fear, which is something I think Tom does really well. He has great vision by the way he helps his teammates, if someone’s getting back picked, he uses his chair skills to free them up. In offence he’s always consistent which forces teams to defend him from all over the court. He can exploit weaknesses within defence and his ball handling skills are sensational. He has a fearless game style.”

Tom: “The interesting thing about Jannik’s game style is how much it’s changed with the times; I think exemplifies how much the game of wheelchair basketball has changed over the years. Earlier in his career, when he was playing with great 4.5’s such as Justin Eveson and Brad Ness he was more of a pick and roll player and was a lot less dynamic with a basketball in the open court, which reflected the game style of low pointers at the time. Nowadays, I think his style of play has transformed as he plays the role of a point guard at the top of the key with a lethal outside shot. If you look at Jannik’s career you can see how much wheelchair basketball has progressed as a whole over the years, with low pointers becoming more vital contributors as creators with the ball and shooters.”


Has anyone specifically influenced you to play the way you do?

Jannik: “I remember playing against Matt Lesperance from the USA at the start of my U23 career and having a really hard time defending him because he was such a mobile low pointer. No matter what I’d do he’d fake me one way and then fake me another, I just couldn’t stick my chair on him, and it drove me insane. Another one was Michael Hartnett because of his intelligence when it came to chair skills. It took me so long to be able to defend those types of players. They left an impression on me as it was style of play I wanted to replicate. In terms of shooting I would love to replicate the consistency of Abdi Jama.”

Tom: “A big one for me was Justin Eveson, he was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen and some of the things that he could do was just phenomenal. He was definitely a guy that I studied a lot of tape with and I asked him a lot of questions when he was involved in the programme. In terms of work ethic, it’s Tristan Knowles, I think he’s the hardest worker in the world at the moment, he’s a guy I look to for motivation. Phil Pratt is a guy that motivates me to get better as I watch the things he does as a class 3. As a fan of wheelchair basketball not just as a player it’s fun to watch him play.”


Personally, I feel that there are a lot of comparisons between you guys and Abdi Jama (Jannik) and Phil Pratt (Tom), how do you feel about these comparisons?

Jannik: “I’m humbled to be compared to Abdi, he’s a great 1-pointer and a phenomenal shooter. As a low pointer in this sport, scoring is something that is often attributed to the high pointers. The fact that Abdi on behalf of the class 1’s put our hat in that ring as he’s shown that it’s possible that we can be great scorers. I see now that a lot of other class 1’s are really working on that mid-range game and rounding out their skillsets because they’ve seen Abdi do it. This makes us more dynamic basketball players and to be compared to someone like him is a humbling experience. We complement each other in different ways. It would be exciting to play alongside him on a team as we could play Abdi, myself and three 4-pointers, it would be an exciting prospect to play in that environment.”

Tom: “It’s hard to compare yourself to other players as Shaun Norris once said to me that you have to become your own player. However, comparisons are always going to happen because we’re the same point-class and of similar age and ability. You have to take the positives out of comparisons. Phil is a world-class player who is a World Champion and the captain of his country and I feel pretty happy to be compared to someone of that calibre. Back when I was 16 at the 2013 U23 World Championships I still remember him balling out and having a great tournament and realising that he was the next up and coming class 3 who was going to be great for years to come. Not to mention the Rio 2016 Paralympics which was the coming out party for Phil when he dropped 20 points against Australia in the quarterfinal. The comparison is an honour but at the same time I can’t let it cloud my head and stop me from becoming the player that I want to become.”


If you could do a training session with three other players from anywhere around the world, who would you choose and why?

Jannik: “I’d choose Troy Sachs as he’s a great of Australian wheelchair basketball, who arguably defined the modern game at the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games by doing things that no-one had ever seen someone in a wheelchair do before such as insane chair skills, physicality and being able to score 42 points in a gold medal game. With me being in my physical prime now I would’ve loved to train with him in his prime and see where we could take the game. I loved how intrinsically motivated he was to push the sport to its limits and that always inspired me. Alex Halouski would be my next pick because he’s a smooth operator in his chair for a big man, he’s got a really nice shot technique and he’s made a big impact on wheelchair basketball, particularly in the last couple of years with the Thuringia Bulls. I’m personally a fan of his game style and I’d love to play and train with him. My final pick would be Ismail Ar from Turkey who hasn’t missed a pick and roll layup since 2011. He’s unbelievably consistent and the relationship that him and Gurbulak have is incredible to watch and really hard to play against. To be able to get a few shots up with him and to be able to see what he does to hone those skills would be something I would enjoy.”

Tom: “The first one for me would be Justin Eveson, hearing the stories from the older Australian players who are still in the programme, he was an incredibly hard worker and it would be so interesting to pick his brain and find out how he came up with ideas to develop as a player. Another interesting one would be Tommy Böhme who’s another 3.0 and an outstanding shooter. Being able to train with him would allow me to see how other players of a similar class think their way through the game and make a stamp on the game at a young age. He’d definitely be a lot of fun to train with and to sit down and talk to. My third pick would be Morteza Ebrihemi because Australia and Iran have had so many great battles over the years at both junior and senior level and I’ve always enjoyed playing against him. Over the past year he’s really established himself as a dominant international player. Training and playing alongside him would just be nuts as he’s an incredible player both with and without the ball.”


Thanks for your time boys!


Rollt. would like to thank Jannik Blair and Tom O’Neill-Thorne for the interview.


Jannik Blair Profile

Date of Birth: 03/02/1992 (aged 27)

Hometown: Horsham, Victoria

Started playing: 2004

Australia senior debut: 2009 Asia Oceania Championships – Dandenong, Australia

Classification: 1.0

Disability: T7 Spinal Cord Injury

Current Clubs:

_Bidaideak Bilbao BSR, ESP (2017-Present)

Former Clubs:

_Horsham Hornets, AUS (2004-07)

_Dandenong Rangers, AUS (2007-12)

_University of Missouri, USA (2010-11)

_University of Alabama, USA (2012-16)

_Wollongong Rollerhawks, AUS (2013)

_Basketball Victoria, AUS (2014)

_Red Dust Heelers, AUS (2015-18)

Career Highlights:

_2010 World Championships – Birmingham, GB – Gold (Australia)

_2012 Paralympic Games – London, GB – Silver (Australia)

_2012-13 NWBA Men’s Collegiate Championship – Gold (Alabama)

_2013 U23 World Championships – Adana, Turkey – Bronze (Australia)

_2014 World Championships – Incheon, South Korea – Gold (Australia)

_2018 World Championships – Hamburg, Germany – Bronze (Australia)

_2019 EuroLeague 1 Finals – Sheffield, GB – Gold (Bilbao)


Tom O’Neill-Thorne Profile

Date of Birth: 08/04/1997 (aged 22)

Hometown: Darwin, Northern Territory

Started playing: 2009

Australia senior debut: 2013 Asia Oceania Championships – Bangkok, Thailand

Classification: 3.0

Disability: Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita

Current Clubs:

_Bidaideak Bilbao BSR, ESP (2018-Present)

_Queensland Spinning Bullets, AUS (2012-Present) (NWBL)

Former Clubs:

_Darwin Basketball Association, AUS (2009-12)

Career Highlights:

_2013 U23 World Championships – Adana, Turkey – Bronze (Australia)

_2014 World Championships – Incheon, South Korea – Gold (Australia)

_2017 U23 World Championships – Toronto, Canada – Bronze (Australia)

_2018 World Championships – Hamburg, Germany – Bronze (Australia)

_2019 EuroLeague 1 Finals – Sheffield, GB – Gold (Bilbao)


Interview: Dylan Cummings | Photo: Uli Gasper

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