As Fairy Tales go this one is pretty near perfect. Just six weeks after taking over as Belgium coach, the Australian-born former Olympian Adam Commens steered the team to the bronze medal in the European Championship and with it a prized place at the Beijing Olympic Games.
By Cathy Harris
The Belgians haven’t played in the Olympics since finishing 9th in Montreal in 1976, and to secure a place with a pulsating 4-3 victory over the world champions, Germany, simply put the icing on the cake.
As stunning as it was unexpected (especially following the 7-2 drubbing by Holland in the semi-final), Commens, 31, may be at the start of an international coaching career but he has already made his mark. “I might be more vocal than other coaches, but I have a simple message: I want a particular style and structure and within that I hope to give the players licence to play with the flair and talents they have. I hope they find me approachable and can discuss anything and everything with me.”
So what he’s doing in Belgium? He won 143 caps as a bustling midfielder for Australia, winning an Olympic bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Games, a World Cup silver medal in 2002 and four Champions Trophy medals. He admits he never scored enough goals – 20 – but he certainly helped to create enough in his time.
After being overlooked for the Athens Olympics, Commens responded to a friend’s invitation to travel to Antwerp where he joined Royal Antwerp HC as player/coach and hasn’t looked back. Settling in well to life in Europe, he has bought an apartment and this season led both the men and women’s teams at the club to national domestic titles. Clearly proud of this achievement this likeable and vibrant young coach also points out that nine of the women’s squad were U-18.
Adam “Billy” Commens was born in the splendidly named Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, the eldest of five children. Other famous Australians to come from this town include former cricket captain Mark Taylor, batsman Michael Slater, rugby league player Peter Stirling and current women’s Hockeyroo, Melanie Twitt. In a closely knit family, his parents played hockey as do his three sisters and once his potential was recognized he moved to Sydney. Part of the Australia junior World Cup winning squad in 1997, he made his senior debut in 1997 against Pakistan.
He picks out coach Greg Corben and former Kookaburra legend Jay Stacey as the biggest influences in his career. “Stacey taught me how important it is to work hard and away from the limelight he was a role model for me, along with Stephen Davies. Barry Dancer (current Australia coach) influenced me in learning how you go about things and how to mould a team. He showed that you don’t always have to be popular and how important it is to give ownership to the players in tactics and style.”
With a frenetic timetable looming, Commens may take some time to do what he enjoys – spending time with his family on the farm in Australia, going to the beach and surfing or his great love, horse racing. He part-owns eight horses and confesses he doesn’t mind the odd little flutter. Back in Europe, he’s happy with the café culture and enjoying time with friends eating good food at restaurants. “It’s good to have a life outside of hockey” he says.
His sporting heroes are the Australia swimmer Kieron Perkins, and the former hockey player turned hugely successful coach, Richard Charlesworth. He describes Charlesworth as “his own man and the coach who revolutionised the way substitutes are used. But he is also a remarkable person.” Commens also nominates the Great Britain rower Sir Steven Redgrave as a hero following his amazing achievement in winning five Olympic gold medals.
Next up is Antwerp’s involvement in the inaugural Euro Hockey League which starts in October. He added: ”It’s an exciting time to be in Europe. The sponsors, tv and the level of participation can only be positive.” He also delivers a damning indictment on the lack of top class coaches saying:” Every country lacks coaches and I believe the only way forward is for ex-players to come through. Germany is leading the way in new techniques – just watch them warm up.”
Exciting times for Royal Antwerp, Belgium and “Billy”, the kid from Wagga Wagga.
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