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The Jillarroos going through final preparations before their three game series against the Kiwi Ferns.

They are no strangers to travelling long distances to play rugby league, but the Jillaroos trip to New Zealand for the Auckland Nines represents a lifelong odyssey with the women's game on the verge of an exciting new era.

From Cairns to Mackay, Bega to Wollongong, the members of the Jillaroos regularly drive over five hours just to play the game they love. And they've done it for years. 

But now they are set to fly to New Zealand to play three games against the Kiwi Ferns at the world famous Eden Park in front of a parochial 45,000 strong crowd and a live television audience as part of the Auckland Nines weekend. It is an amazing opportunity to showcase how far the women's game has come and the exciting new direction it is heading.

"I heard a lot of stories about girls driving or flying five to six hours just to play every weekend," Jillaroos coach Steve Folkes told 

"Some girls fly from Cairns to Mackay every second weekend to play. If that doesn't show commitment and how much they love the game, I don't know what does. 

"Deanna Turner flies from Mackay to Brisbane to play, Heather Ballinger lives in Cairns and plays in Brisbane, Kezzie Apps drives from Bega to Wollongong. That is a massive commitment every weekend to play. 

"They love the game, they are very committed to it, the fact they are willing to travel those distances... you wouldn't find too many NRL guys doing that every week."

As the NRL steps up its focus and commitment to grow the game, 16 excited Jillaroos are preparing for the next big journey for the development of the women's game. 

Kiwi Ferns ready for clash with Jillaroos.

Most of their squad were part of the historic 2013 World Cup triumph in England when the Jillaroos finally wrestled World Champion status away from New Zealand for the first time in the Cup's history. 

Now they have an opportunity to be regularly featured and promoted with their male counterparts. It started last year with the Jillaroos dramatic last-minute loss to the Kiwis at WIN Stadium in Wollongong. A curtain-raiser enjoyed by thousands at the ground and streamed by over 16,000 fans live on

But to play in front of a packed Eden Park? It doesn't get much bigger.

"It is a first for all of them to play in front of 45,000 people and those fans will get to see what the girls can do," Folkes said.

"They've done it without pay for a real long time, so this is a massive reward for all the girls who have stuck with it. 

"They are getting to travel and play more which is a really good feeling, I know [NRL CEO] Dave Smith has been keen to grow the game and it has been terrific for the women's game to have his support.

"They appreciate the girls that have gone before them and want to do as best they can to repay all the hard work."

No one appreciates it more than Jillaroos captain Steph Hancock - the daughter of Australian and Queensland representative Rohan - who has been playing in the national side since 2003 and describes captaining her country as the greatest thing that has ever happened in her life. 

She has seen firsthand the changes that are sweeping the women's game and how far it has come.

"We used to have to wait every five years for a Wold Cup to play against New Zealand," Hancock told 

"It is great that the NRL are organising more Test matches and paying for our travel, accommodation and gear - it is so much better now than what it used to be. The girls are over the moon, there are two girls that are wearing the Green and Gold for the first time and they are so excited.

"None of us have experienced anything close to what we'll have over the weekend with a crowd of over 45,000. We really have no idea what to expect, but we are looking forward to having a crack and showing everyone that we can play footy and hopefully it encourages all the younger girls to start playing footy."

The love of the game might have brought her all the way to being named captain of her country, but it is the opportunity as an ambassador and statesman to grow the women's game that keeps Hancock going. 

It is a role she doesn't take lightly.

"The reason I'm still playing is that I have a lot of young kids that look up to me and want to achieve what I have achieved in the game," she says.

"I'm not trying to talk myself up, but it is great that young girls can see that if they really want it, they can take rugby league all the way to playing for Australia.

"It is great for them that they can start playing footy at their country club and can work their way up to a South East Queensland or Queensland team, then an Australian team. If that is what they want to aspire to become, they can see that it is possible. 

"Looking at a local schoolgirls comp, there were six teams last year and I think they'll have 20 this year. So it shows how much the game has grown and how much potential is there.

"When I was playing under 7s and 8s, I wasn't allowed to play after that for a few years, but now with the development of the game, you can pretty much play the whole way through and that is great. 

"If we can continue to build that and give the girls the same opportunities the boys get, that would be awesome and that is what we are trying to do."

The Jillaroos will take on the Kiwi Ferns in three games over the two days of the NRL Auckland Nines tournament, including a curtain-raiser before the Final - ensuring a fever pitch capacity crowd gets to see them play.

The NRL also announced earlier this week that the two sides will play the curtain raiser for the mid-year Test at Suncorp Stadium on May 1.

And the women's game continues to grow.

Check out the Jillaroos Nines squad.

Kiwi Ferns chance to shine on the big stage. 


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