hat started as a bit of OE rugby fun has turned Glen Rolls into an Olympian.

Or Olympian in waiting to be more accurate, as the former Napier Boys High School first XV and Hawkes Bay sevens player waits to hear confirmation he is in Spain's squad for Rio.

The Spaniards, who aren't even on the international sevens circuit, shocked Samoa and plenty of others with a fulltime try to win the repechage in Monaco and claim the 12th and final Rio spot.

The hardest of sporting hearts could only melt watching their veteran captain Pablo Feijoo - known as Gandalf after the wise Lord of the Rings wizard - shed tears at Stade Louis II.
"We've been working some of us for 15 years for this," he told a TV interviewer.


The 29-year-old Rolls is the only foreigner among Spain's 14 contracted sevens players, although injury forced him out of the Monaco tournament.

This is one of those come from nowhere stories, where good timing meets a bloke who grabs a rare opportunity with both hands. It also means Rolls is perfectly placed to reveal how a rugby backwater has ended up at the Olympics.

"It has been labelled here as a miracle without looking behind it, as if we came together overnight," he tells the Herald from Madrid.

"...You were lucky if a team went more than two phases. I remember thinking 'what the hell and I doing here"


Rolls has also been a long work in process. The openside flanker was playing in Christchurch while studying at Lincoln University and was noticed by a local club coach from Spain. A half-season offer arrived and in 2008 Rolls headed to Valladolid, Spain's rugby capital, but wasn't too impressed initially.

"The refereeing was atrocious and back then you were lucky if a team went more than two phases. I remember thinking 'what the hell and I doing here," he says.

Going to the Olympics turned out to be the long-term answer as about a dozen 15-a-side matches for Spain morphed into a sevens career from 2011.

Enter Ignacio "Tiki" Inchausti, who played at centre for Spain in the 1999 World Cup. The 43-year-old sevens coach is a policeman by morning, before heading off each day for one of his various rugby coaching assignments.

Rolls says: "He is the architect of this, an unreal man who thinks like foreign coaches, whose mind is always open.

"He was fed up with how s!@#$%^&* the sevens were. Previously it was a ragged bunch of individuals coming together as mates and going on drinking trips.

"He got 16 players to train in summer as fully paid professionals, two or three times a day over two to three years. The level skyrocketed and they started beating the likes of Wales, Scotland, Russia, Portugal. Before that, they were getting beaten by 40 to 50 points."

It has been far from a smooth ride due to changes in administration and Spanish rugby debt which hit $3m. Spain's time on the World Series circuit was short-lived and they are still battling to re-qualify through European tournaments. At one point, the sevens programme was scrapped, leaving Rolls "out on the street". They have backing again, although there is also a lot of self help.

One of Rolls' best friends is sevens team mate Ignacio Martin, who filled a backpack and headed to Fiji for two years in order to improve by learning from the best sevens players in the world. That led to the squad paying for their own month-long camp in Fiji this year.

With Rio calling, the national sports ministry paid for sports psychology sessions two weeks before the Monaco tournament where exercises included blindfolded players being surrounded by team mates who offered compliments.

Rolls said: "I know that Gilbert Enoka has been a key to the All Blacks' but sports psychology is still a novelty in Spanish rugby.

"Self belief is critical for us. As our captain says, when our spirit and team work is good we are strong, but when it isn't we don't have the individual brilliance and get hammered.

"We only had four or five hours with him but it was unreal - afterwards you felt 'get me a Spanish jersey now, I want to play a tournament now'".

Rolls, who has completed a masters in sports management, is married to a Spanish physiotherapist, Saila Insua, but his immersion into Spanish life is not totally complete.

He is still amused by schedules for sevens camps which include designated times for a siesta - the traditional Spanish afternoon nap. And of course he is still living in a world where rugby is a non-event for almost everyone.

"Hardly anyone in Spain cares for rugby or understands it," he says.

"There is still a mindset that it is quite violent, but that is changing slowly and sevens is already starting to re-shape the game globally. A lot will happen after the Olympics.

"Sevens is easier to understand than 15s, the players don't have to be massive, and it is more exciting...it will click and grow immensely after Rio."

Even the 15-a-side version is having an unusual burst of publicity though.

With European football taking over France's big stadiums, their Top 14 final between Dan Carter's Racing 92 and a Toulon team minus the injured Ma'a Nonu will be played before almost 100,000 spectators at Barcelona football's Nou Camp this weekend.

And the April Spanish club final in Valladolid drew a 26,000 crowd with 10,000 more in a carpark fan zone. The match was attended for the first time by King Felipe VI.

Now, the Olympics call giving Spanish rugby another lift, and a delighted Kiwi the chance to live an unexpected dream.

Rolls says: "Not going to Monaco may knock my Olympic chances but I can prove my worth at two European tournaments before then.

"It's incredible really. I never dreamed of becoming an Olympian back in New Zealand. To be so close is unreal, surreal. Words can't describe it."