The European Championships Division C is fast approaching. It will take place in Sofia, Bulgaria from July 29th to August 4th. Seven nations will battle it out to be promoted up to Division B. Matt Rollston, who captains Ireland spoke with Rollt.’s Dylan Cummings and gave a preview of his team’s chances ahead of the tournament.
What do you make of Ireland’s chances in the tournament and who do you think will be your toughest competition?
“This year we hope to come out on top. It’s always difficult to know what players are going to show up for their national teams, but we see Czech Republic as our biggest threat as well as our long-term rivals, Portugal.”
How have training camps been going?
“We have been making the most of the last few months, getting the squad together. Our coach Valene Ryan, and assistant coach Conn Coughlan led us to a practise tournament in Barcelona a few weeks ago. The guys are in good shape physically and we have great team spirit, with several young guys making national team debuts in Bulgaria next week.”
What do you think are your team’s strengths and how important is it for you to progress out of Division C?
“We are a fast, physical team and have some great new assets. Several under 18 lads, showing real talent and improvement, also a big and physical 4.5 who is impressing. We have a talented squad. Alongside some of us more experienced players with outside and inside threats, we can make it out of Division C and into B. This is my personal goal. The rest of the team are hungry for this too. We know that if our national team can push up into Division B, it will be great news for Irish Wheelchair Basketball; competing at that level will bring new standards back to clubs and individual training sessions. We must keep pushing for more, Division B is in our focus.”
What do you think the team could further improve prior to the tournament?
“We will conduct video analysis of other teams to help us get ahead of any potential surprises. Club habits are hard to break for us all, so getting the group consistently working on national team plays and reads together will be important for us to achieve success. We will be re-enforcing those in our time outs.”
Talk us through s few of your memories with GB…
“I’ve had the pleasure to attend many GB training camps over the years, being coached under several of the best coaches in the world, whilst playing alongside and against many of the world’s best. My first men’s camp was under Dave Tittmus, in 2001. There were more selection camps in the following years, were I would get down to the last cut and not make the final 16. It was tough to take. Every time I got an invite I was there. I finally made the men’s squad from 2009 to 2012, under Murray Treseder with assistant coaches Haj Bhania and Sinclair Thomas. There was so much talent there, the competition was incredibly fierce. A constant demand for everyone to give their absolute best and more. Fine tuning of the game. A detailed focus on minimising errors. Scrimmages were amazing, I had some serious enjoyment battling with teammates and we were constantly learning from the coaches.
I have some incredibly tough sessions engrained in my mind from those camps. One was in Sheffield pre-Beijing 2008, eight stations, eight minutes each one. Eight minutes non-stop, wall taps, then on to Christmas trees and so on… Agonizing. No-one will forget those. I set speed records over the years in fitness testing that hung around for a good few years, so Haj tells me. I was happy to give the boys a parting gift of a speed to catch.”
What happened in the lead up to London 2012?
“In the season running up to London 2012 I picked up a shoulder injury. We tried to rehab out of it, hoping to avoid surgery, but this lost me more time. I ended up missing the selection window, and with it missing out on any chance to represent GB at the Paralympic Games. That was a dark period in my life, I was so cut up about it. I became so aware, that behind every success there is a lot of athletes devastated they didn’t get ‘there’.
The following year, the GB team had so much young talent coming through, the competition was increasing, it was incredibly hard to get minutes in games, I was getting older, and the travelling from Northern Ireland to England for training camps was getting too much. It was time to move on.”
What do you make of the new talent in GB nowadays?
“This abundance of amazing new talent, pushing up through the programme made up a good portion of the team that became World Champions last year. What an achievement. They took it to the next level. Thinking of what that team achieved, under Haj Bhania and Steven Caine as coaches still gives me goose bumps! Big up to our home-grown James MacSorley, it was a special moment for his childhood teammates from the NI Knights to watch his contributions to the team success. I’m very attached to Team GB. I’m indebted to them.”
Talk us through your transition from GB to Ireland and do you feel as if the two compare?
“The following year, I took a nice break from international commitments and played club basketball for a few years. Over the previous years I had been approached by the various Ireland team coaches asking me to swap to Team Ireland, and in 2015 with Ireland coach Jason Kennedy, I joined the Irish team and I’ve loved my time with them, they instantly made me feel very welcome. This year will be my 4th European Championships with Ireland.
Unfortunately, the Ireland team setup struggles financially, we are without funding and no-one is playing basketball full-time as their career. This has hampered player development over the years and is no doubt the reason why we have struggled to move out of Division C. GB training sessions are next level, it’s a fully professional setup so it’s difficult to compare. If we are ever to begin to close the gap or stop it widening, funding and full-time program is a necessity.
I’m thankful that GB camps have engrained a strong work ethic in me, and I try to bring it to the Ireland sessions. The guys always have their minds open to the higher standards attainable and are keen to push themselves to achieve them.”
NI Knights have just been promoted back up to the British Premier League, what do you think needs to be done in the Republic of Ireland to up the standard of competition in the league?
“NI Knights had a great season, led by our player/coach Paul McKillop. We had a great final run, needing to win our last six games in a row. The guys played some outstanding basketball and we earned promotion. Next season will be a big step up and we are relishing the opportunity. As for the Republic of Ireland, the league has been growing well there also. You can see by the periodic restructuring of the GB leagues system; it takes tweaking to get these things right. Maybe the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) can continue to tweak the Irish league to maximise standards of competition. It all comes down to the standard of training/competition, the quality and education of team coaches, and how professional the Irish Team set up is. The players in the Irish team will bring the best practices back to their clubs and standards will increase because of this.”
You have been abroad before, how do you think your experience benefits the Irish Team?
“I don’t know what extra it brings me, but I have played against some great oppositions, endured some nasty losses, and been part of some outstanding victories. This week ahead will be a new set of challenges, working with a new group with an objective to achieve our best. What I hope to do is to keep our team working together for each other with communication and positive energy. I believe in all my teammates. That’s crucially important and I hope I can give the team what they need from me.”
How would you describe your style of play?
“My general game plan is to create mayhem and kill the opposition’s momentum. I want to push the floor hard, offensively and defensively and bring my team with me. It’s so satisfying to have an impact on the game by out manoeuvring the opposition and while I love pressure and speed of play, a perfectly placed pass is as rewarding as a great basket, possibly even more so.”
Has anyone specifically influenced you to play the way you do?
“I’ve been blessed to have many great coaches over the years, and they’ve taught me almost everything I know tactically. The GB programme has had a big influence on me physically, they worked us hard. Personally, I’m hungry for the ball, I want to get the ball inbounded fast and make the most of transition opportunities. Coaches have been happy to let me get the ball in my hands and push the floor. I love when we get new players who join our club that have that hunger, intensity and passion from the start. To me it’s so important.”
What pieces of coaching advice have stuck with you throughout your career?
“One of Murray Treseders’ most notable coaching points was that: ‘If you can’t defend, you can’t play.’ It’s that simple, concentrate on your defence first. Another great principle for the other end of the floor was from Haj Bhania, and that’s to get the ball to your offensive threats as early in the offence as possible. Time where the ball is not in a threatening position is waste of your time on offence. There’s also engrained work ethic. In training, don’t cut corners, touch lines on sprints, push until the line, and find your ‘edges.’”
If you could train with three players, male or female, from anywhere around the world, who would they be and why?
“Helen Freeman, Patrick Anderson, and Trevon Jenifer. I have trained with Helen before, she’s the quickest female player I’ve competed against. She’s got mad skills. Patrick can work magic. We played together during my season in Cologne, sometimes he would pull a move that was just incredible like hard to believe it just happened type of incredible. Plus, he passes the ball like a dream, his mind is ahead of the play. Trevon, do you see how fast that guy is? I’d like to run some presses with him on my team, a frightening prospect! By the way, if any of you three fancy a spot in the best team in Ireland, hit me up on Facebook, #NIKnights haha! Please! (laughs) In my season in Germany, I had a training session with Patrick Anderson and Paul Shulte in Cologne. That was my most memorable session. We scrimmaged up and down. It was magic. One of those session that you don’t want to end.”
Thanks for your time, Matt.
Rollt. would like to thank Matt Rollston for the interview.
Matt Rollston Profile
Date of Birth: 23/02/1980 (aged 39)
Hometown: Rathfriland, County Down, Northern Ireland
Started playing: 1991
GB senior debut: 2009
Ireland senior debut: 2015
Disability: Double-leg amputee
Current Club: NI Knights, GBR, 1991-07, 2008-10, 2011-12, 2014-16, 2018-Present
_RGK Sporting Club Rhinos, GBR (2007-08)
_Köln 99ers, GER (2010-11)
_GLL & Aspire London Titans, GBR (2012-13)
_The OWLS, GBR (2013-14)
_Leopards de Guyenne Bordeaux, FRA (2016-18)
_U23 World Championships 2001 – 4th (GB)
_U22 European Championships 2002 – Gold (GB)
_BT Paralympic World Cup 2009 – Bronze (GB)
_Andre Vergauwn Cup 2011 – Silver (Köln 99ers)
_EuroLeague 3 Finals 2013 – 6th (The OWLS)
_European Championships Division C 2015 – 4th (Ireland)
_European Championships Division B 2016 – 8th (Ireland)
_European Championships Division C 2017 – Bronze (Ireland)
_EuroLeague 3 Finals 2018 – 6th (Leopards de Guyenne Bordeaux)
_IWA Sportsperson of the Year 2017
Head Coach: Valene RYAN
Assistant Coach: Conn COUGHLAN
Interview: Dylan Cummings | Photo: Irish Wheelchair Basketball