Beach volleyball star’s risk on rugby pays off
Leaping from volleyball spikes to rugby line-outs, Kelsie Wills is primed for her second season in the Farah Palmer Cup - and a chance to slip on the black jersey.
Kelsie Wills always knew it would be a risk trying to make a successful switch from the beach volleyball court to the rugby field. But then, assessing risk is her full-time job.
The auditor and professional athlete decided the risk would be worth it. And it seems to be looking favourable for the 27-year-old, who had travelled the world playing volleyball and represented New Zealand in the beach version of the sport at the last Commonwealth Games, but took a punt at rugby for the first time last year.
In her debut season, Wills ended up making the Bay of Plenty Volcanix squad in the national provincial competition, the Farah Palmer Cup, and was called into the Black Ferns camps earlier this year.
“Getting to play with all these amazing athletes is pretty cool," Wills says. "We’ve had a few camps now and it's been an awesome environment to be in.
"I’m just gutted we haven’t been able to play a test series or anything yet, but I know when we can, it'll be great." The Black Ferns were supposed to play eight tests this year in the lead-up to next year's Rugby World Cup on home turf, but Covid-19 intervened.
Away from the line-outs, the six-foot (1.83m) lock is an auditor at KPMG in Tauranga and says the firm has been supportive over the four years she’s worked for them.
“They’ve been awesome with letting me follow my sporting endeavours and catering for me with all that it brings. I’ve just made it through a busy mid-season job so I can breathe a little now,” she says.
Not for too long, though, as the FPC finally kicks off this weekend, after a couple of false starts.
Wills is among good company at BOP, with three Black Ferns - captain Les Elder, hooker Luka Connor and back Renee Wickliffe - also representing the province, as well as international sevens players Kelly Brazier, Risi Pouri-Lane and Mahina Paul.
(Wills, right, is pictured above with Connor and Wickliffe at a recent Black Ferns training camp.)
Before taking up rugby, Wills studied accounting and finance at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York.
During her indoor volleyball college scholarship, she etched her name on a number of college records while heavily influencing the Hofstra team. Then she went on to play professionally in Paris for a year.
Wills says the US college experience was a career highlight and helped her with juggling all the different balls in her life.
“It was full-on, but I wouldn’t change it. It was pretty much full-time professional athlete and full-time study, so not a lot outside of that,” she says.
“But I think that provided me with a really good base to life - just the level of intensity and commitment you have to throw out there. And I made some awesome friends.”
Wills is remembered as one of Hoftstra’s volleyball programme’s best players with the record for most career kills, as one of only two All-Americans from the college. In her final year in 2014 she received the player of the year in her collegiate athletic conference and was instrumental in the team’s conference titles and getting them to NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) tournaments.
Now she plans to add to her sporting highlight reel with a Black Ferns jersey. She’s already represented New Zealand in beach volleyball at the 2018 Commonwealth Games - making it as far as the quarterfinals, then finishing fifth with her partner Shaunna Polley.
“Obviously wearing a Black Ferns jersey will be awesome. I feel like what I'm doing day-in and day-out will eventually get me to that point,” says Wills.
It’s this mentality that pushed her to great heights in volleyball. A podium finish at the Commonwealth Games was what she and Polley were aiming for, as the pair hoped a medal would set a strong case to secure some much-needed funding. They worked well together, and had won a bronze medal at the Ulsan Open on the beach volleyball world tour in 2017.
But Wills says it was “pretty hard” to hold down a full-time job as well as playing volleyball at a competitive level.
“It’s all self-funded, and most of the competition is overseas so it’s pretty hard to accommodate for work, play and try to start up a savings account,” Wills says.
So she decided to take a couple of months’ rest in late 2018 – and then picked up rugby.
Her partner, Jeff Thwaites, also plays for the BOP province in the Mitre 10 Cup. This year the couple moved down to Dunedin for six months while he played for the Highlanders in the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition. She moved back to Tauranga in June.
Having a partner who plays professional rugby and growing up watching a fair share of the code meant the sport wasn’t entirely new to Wills. And she found she could transfer some of her skills from volleyball.
Her base gym fitness changed slightly to help “bulk up” for a forward role in rugby, but her competitive drive stayed intact with the transition. She says she’s picking up technical aspects along the way too.
“I’m doing more film analysis and stuff like that since I started playing which helps a lot. And watching what other locks are doing during Super Rugby games has been good,” says Wills.
Playing with a mixture of Black Ferns and young guns at both the provincial and Black Ferns levels is also helping shape her play.
“I feel it’s quite funny for me because I'm one of the older ones but I’m real fresh too, so it’s an interesting deal,” she says. “But it’s been awesome having people like Les [Elder] in our Volcanix team. You know when she speaks, you listen.
“But in saying that I’ve felt way more comfortable this year when I’ve taken on helping the younger girls, whereas last year I was still learning the rules.”
When she’s not jumping, training or auditing, Wills likes to spend time with her family.
She grew up on a dairy farm near Matamata with two older brothers. The eldest is a dairy farmer, like her parents, and her other brother owns a crossfit business in Switzerland.
“He actually went to uni with me in the States, but he was on a tennis scholarship. It was pretty awesome having him over there at the same time and handy for Mum and Dad when they tried to visit us,” says Wills.
“I'm pretty lucky to have both my grandparents still around in Tauranga so I try to see them when I can. And my parents are back on the farm over Matamata ways. I love going home to the farm too.”
With her day-to-day roles, her work and sport, friends are getting used to seeing two different sides of Wills.
“It's pretty funny when my sporting friends see me in my work clothes or my work friends see me in my sports clothes. They're amused but I think both are definitely getting the idea of it now,” she says.
And it may be more of a familiar sight if Wills can successfully calculate her efforts on and off the field.
* The Volcanix have a bye in the opening FPC round this weekend. The competition starts with Waikato v Northland in Hamilton on Saturday at 12.30pm, Counties Manukau v North Harbour in Pukekohe at 2.35pm (televised live on Sky Sport 1), and Taranaki v Auckland in Inglewood on Sunday at 12pm.