Australia United: How Meninga is bringing the Jillaroos into the fold
Veteran prop Heather Ballinger didn't know until she checked in at Brisbane airport ahead of her final Test in Auckland on Saturday that all three Australian teams – the Kangaroos, Jillaroos and Junior Kangaroos – were travelling together on their own chartered flight.
The game has come a long way since 36-year-old Ballinger and teammates had to sell cars or rely on raffles to afford to play for the Jillaroos and attempts are being made to ensure any player who wears the green and gold jersey is treated the same, regardless of whether they are male or female.
The three Australian teams, who will play a triple-header against their New Zealand counterparts for the first time at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday, spent two days in camp together at the same hotel before flying to Auckland, taking part in joint bonding activities and travelling on their own plane.
"To work together as one big unit is great, it helps to bond the teams together," Ballinger said. "I go back to a time when we had to pay our own way, make do with what we could afford at the time and just have whatever players could afford to go away.
"Now we can select our best players and take them away and ensure they are fed well, hydrated well, recovered well, trained well and put out on the field quality football that people can enjoy.
"I didn't find out about the plane until we went to the airport but that is excellent work done by the NRL to put that on and I guess it just brings us together as a united squad."
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga estimated that there were 100 people involved with the three teams so it was cheaper and easier to charter their own plane for the flight to Auckland.
However, the efforts to bring the sides together went far beyond sharing an aeroplane.
The teams stayed at the same hotel in Brisbane and on Sunday night Meninga took them to Enoggera Barracks, also known as Gallipoli Barracks, where they had dinner and he outlined why it was important that the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I be honoured on Saturday night.
"We want to acknowledge and commemorate 100 years of Armistice Day and the Armed Services, and what they have done for our country," Menginga said. "It is important from our point of view to say thanks to all of those men and women who have served and allowed us to be what we are today."
Under Meninga's coaching rein, the Kangaroos have introduced a series of values for players to follow known as RISE – Respect, Inspire, Selfless, Excellence – and the players heard that the Armed Forces have similar set of principles.
"Part of our RISE value system is around selflessness, it is around mateship, it is about being inclusive and team first, regardless of whether you are male or female or a Junior Kangaroo," Meninga said. "It is the expectation of any player – male or female – in the green and gold jersey."
An example of Meninga's determination to have all players afforded the same opportunity was his response to a question in Auckland on Thursday about the "women's game" being played before the Kangaroos-Kiwis Test on Saturday.
"Every time we talk about the game we actually mean men and women, boys and girls," Meninga said.
"It is all inclusive, it is all equal for everyone who participates in our game at the highest end.
"It is not a curtain raiser, it is not a separate game, it is a double-header or in this case a triple-header, with the Junior Kangaroos and Kiwis playing too."
Jillaroos second-rower Kezie Apps said the introduction of the Holden NRL Women's Premiership this season had lifted the profile of the game's female players and their Kangaroos counterparts were supportive of the competition.
"It was awesome to be together as one big group, to stay at the same hotel as them and to do activities together," Apps said. "It was just a really nice feeling that we are being treated the same – the men and women.
"The boys are great, we were talking to some of them and they were saying how much they loved it (the NRLW), and they were asking questions about the players and how we do things. It was really good to hear that they actually followed us in the Women's Premiership.
"We look up to them as players and as athletes and now we are getting the opportunity to play just like they are playing week in and week out."
Kangaroos forward Tyson Frizell said the three Australian teams would continue helping each other in Auckland in a bid to achieve a hat-trick of victories over New Zealand on Saturday.
"It is the first time all of us being together and I think Mal wants us all to be on the same page in the direction we want to go as Australian rugby league players," Frizell said. "Everything that we did for those two days in Brisbane was pretty much all together."
"Mal made an effort to make it a memorable occasion. He took us to the army camp and we had dinner and a few people told some stories. It all related back to mateship and that is what this camp was all about. Going out there on Saturday we will be trying to show that."