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Jillaroos star Kezie Apps.

The Jillaroos' three games against the Kiwi Ferns at the Auckland Nines in February 2017 was coach Brad Donald's first engagement as national coach and the progress made since shows how far the squad has come.

Just four players from this Jillaroos squad featured then – co-captains Kezie Apps and Ali Brigginshaw and now-established duo Isabelle Kelly and Corban McGregor.

Plenty of senior players retired shortly after that tournament and a few more since, while a crop of fresh faces have forced their way into the national set-up.

Donald said he couldn't wait to see what the likes of Jess Sergis, Tiana Penitani and Millie Boyle could do this weekend in the reduced format.

"The hard work they've put in to become really strong powerful athletes, it's a phenomenal effort in two-and-a-half-years and it's a credit to the players we've picked," Donald said.

"That was my first foray into the national level of the women's game. Pretty much all we had on the national agenda then was the Auckland Nines. Three games there, then a mid-season test."

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The 2017 World Cup at the end of that year was the platform for the real acceleration in women's rugby league since, according to Donald, who used an example of one of his early meetings with the wider squad to highlight the development.

"The first time we had 35 players in camp, 35 of the best players in Australia and we asked them how many of them were in strength programs and six of them put their hands up," he said.

"From that point we said if we want to make this game more professional it's going to take a lot of commitment and the players that are still around today have worked really, really hard.

"You can tell in their body shape and their speed, their endurance, it's been a long road for some of them but they've worked really hard."

Apps was one of those six players who raised her hand in that meeting three years ago and she agreed the difference over such a short period was stark.

"It's come such a long way. We were looking at footage the other day, we were watching the games of how we used to play it and it's changed so much," she said.

"The skill level and athleticism of the girls has gone leaps and bounds over the last few years.

"I was in that group, I was one of the six. There was like 35 of us and five or six of us put our hands up that were following a strength and conditioning program. We were blown away how many people weren't doing it, they were mainly doing running stuff rather than doing any strength stuff.

Australia Nines representative Shakiah Tungai.
Australia Nines representative Shakiah Tungai. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

"We've been pretty lucky with the strength and conditioning coaches through the Jillaroos and through NRLW and NSW as well who've given us a lot of these programs to help us over the last couple of years. You can see in the games a lot more athleticism in the girls and our build, different body shapes and stuff like that."

Apps doesn't have the happiest memories of 2017 – she came off with a nasty head cut in one game and Donald initially wasn't going to let her back on. He relented and she broke her leg on the next carry.

"2017 wasn't a good year for me, that's when I broke my leg and I haven't played [Nines] since then but I like the concept of the open space and one-on-one tackles," she said.

"We've got so many quick girls and fit girls ... we've got some great speed and talent in our side and I can't wait to see them in open space."


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