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New Zealand Māori Ferns coach Keith Hanley says the side's depth has never been greater with the expansion to six teams in the NRLW fast-tracking the next crop of All Stars talent.

Hanley said he was spoilt for choice to pick an 18-player squad who will look to build on their 24-0 win over the Indigenous All Stars in Townsville last year.

The Māori Ferns will gather in camp on Monday afternoon with 11 players returning to help defend the Murphy-Fanning trophy at CommBank Stadium.

Most of the players in Hanley's squad will then return to their NRLW clubs following the match in preparation for the NRL Telstra Women's Premiership starting on February 27.

"There was a massive squad this year, we've got a lot of depth which is exciting for the women's game and something that's only going to help develop players," Hanley told NRL.com.

"It's come a very long way in a short span of time and part of that is the growth of the NRLW.

"This week there is always an onus on the footy field but for us as well there is a component around connecting all the girls to our culture.

"Having them walk away with a fuller understanding of who they are and where they come from will hopefully put them in great stead for the season."

Among the selection stories for the Māori Ferns include Broncos veteran Lavinia Gould, who will pull on the jersey for the first time on Saturday night.

New Zealand Maori Ferns coach Keith Hanley.
New Zealand Maori Ferns coach Keith Hanley. ©NRL Photos

Hanley wanted to pick the 38-year-old for last year's campaign but the NRLW premiership-winner had to withdraw for family reasons.

"I liken 'Vinny' to last year's story with Benji Marshall," Hanley said.

"I'm not saying it's to that level but in the women's game she's ticked nearly every box, won multiple premierships and played rugby union at the highest level.

"The raw emotion from the conversation I had with her when I gave her the call last week, and the tears that came with it, showed the passion and meaning of what it's all about.

"And then there are younger players like Tiana [Raftstrand-Smith], who proved herself at State of Origin level last year but this is another cauldron and theatre for her.

"It's about controlling emotion and maturing. The two young girls, Autumn-Rain [Stephens-Daly] and Katelyn [Vaha'akolo], we've monitored them, and to be able to give them the opportunity is very pleasing.

"We're hugely excited about those players because they're the future of the game."

Hanley also made mention of Olivia Kernick, who will follow in the footsteps of Dane Gagai and don the Māori Ferns jersey after representing the Indigenous All Stars last year.

Maori women's haka

"It was strange because whenever I went into the lift at the hotel we all stayed at last year it always seemed to be with Olivia Kernick," Hanley said.

"We got chatting and I got to meet her mum who is Māori. She's very blessed to have heritage for both first nations and she's been fantastic to deal with.

"Once the game was over in Townsville we kept in touch and let the process unfold for her to join us."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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