They might be a collection of posties, social workers, personal trainers, teachers, police officers and mums.

But new Kiwi Ferns coach Justin Morgan is clear about one thing: under his regime the Kiwi Ferns will be expected to act like rugby league professionals.

“The one thing I certainly won’t compromise on will be standards,” says Morgan, an experienced professional coach who is under no illusions as to the size of the task the Kiwi Ferns face in keeping pace with their arch-rival Jillaroos.

Getting very much part-time players to adopt the traits of full-time professionals is a challenge Morgan has experienced before – with some success. From 2002 to 2005, the former Warriors prop cut his coaching teeth at Toulouse Olympique in the French league, a reign that culminated with the part-time minnows making a remarkable run all the way to the semifinals of the Challenge Cup.

When the will is there, there is a way, and – having served as the Kiwi Ferns’ assistant coach for the thrilling one-off test against Australia last October – Morgan is certain the will most certainly exists.

“[The players] have the desire to get as close to professionalism as they possibly can, and that is what I am about,” he says. “The challenge for me is to get the girls as close as possible to having the attitude and mentality of a full-time athlete, even though they are not.

“That’s a difficult thing. I understand that has its challenges.”

The requisite for professionalism will apply both when the team comes together (their next assignment is against Samoa in Auckland on June 22) and during the long stretches between campaigns. Behind its need is the daunting prospect of keeping pace with Australia – a previously slumbering giant that is now fully embracing the women’s game.

“You can’t just expect to go into a campaign and all of sudden expect everything to fall into place,” says Morgan. “Because the game is evolving so quickly – across the water they are putting in a lot of time and effort into the women’s game – we have to be sure that we keep up. They are currently the number one team in the world. We need to keep track with them and then go past them.”

The challenge may be increasingly daunting, but Morgan is optimistic. Having coached Hull KR in England’s Super League from 2005-2011, and then served as an assistant at the Raiders and Warriors in the NRL and the Kiwis internationally, the Australian-born adopted Kiwi is not long removed from the sport’s peak high performance environments.

Having pulled back from coaching as a career path (“it was slightly too volatile for my liking…”) after the 2016 season, to concentrate on media work and managing a golf course, he was drawn back in late last year as Kelvin Wright’s assistant for the Kiwi Ferns’ one-off test against Australia at Mt Smart.

“I always had an interest in the women’s game,” Morgan says. “When I was asked to be involved with the Kiwi Ferns last year I thought it might be a good chance to see it first-hand. I’d watched it from afar and seen it develop – not only rugby league, but women’s sport full stop. So I jumped at the opportunity.”

The match was a thriller, with the Kiwi Ferns recovering from an early 0-12 deficit and loss of key halfback Kimiora Nati to lead late in the second half – only to succumb 24-26, thanks to a 74th-minute Jillaroos’ match-winning try.

“We did pretty well,” was Morgan’s assessment of the match. “But pretty well is not what you want to do. You want to win those games.

“That really stoked the fire in the belly. I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed that coaching element. It was a good group of girls to be involved with. And to do it on an international stage, not many people get that opportunity.

“Seeing their resilience and the way they prepared for that, they are a group of players I was very keen to stay involved with.”

Justin Morgan was assistant coach of the NZ Warriors back in 2016, and was drawn back into coaching last year. Photo: Getty Images

Morgan’s first taste of the women’s game was a test between Australia and Great Britain in Canberra in 2000. Then a player with the Raiders, Morgan watched the curtain-raiser match from the sidelines – and was impressed with what he saw.

“It was the first time I’d watched women’s rugby league and they just smashed each other,” he says.

The advent of the NRLW in 2018 has propelled the women’s game to a new level of exposure, however anything approaching genuine equality is still a long way off.

This year the NRL is likely to retain the same format for the NRLW – a four-team round robin followed by a grand final running concurrent with the NRL playoffs – and then the competition will be reviewed.

While there has been talk of likely expansion in 2020 and beyond, the NRL will need to put its money where its mouth is.

“The NRL talks about wanting women to be part of the future of the game, well, they’ve got to make it financially viable for the clubs,” says Morgan, who is more than a little incredulous the NRL charges clubs a fee to enter the NRLW.

“The fact that they actually charge clubs to play in the competition – they don’t charge the Warriors men’s team to play in the competition but they charge the women. The messaging needs to be supported by the funding.

“I know with the Warriors they want to be involved, they want to be one of the leading clubs in the women’s game. But, at the same time, they can’t do it at the expense of other parts of the organisation. So I think the funding model really needs to be looked at by the NRL.”

In New Zealand, the major challenge is to create pathways for female players akin to those available for rugby union players. While union has the advantage of a funding stream from High Performance Sport New Zealand that stems from rugby sevens being an Olympic sport and translates into Black Ferns professional contracts, Morgan doesn’t see that as insurmountable.

“We are a little bit behind [union],” he says. “We don’t have the advantage of being an Olympic sport, so funding from HPSNZ is different. But the dealings I have had with HPSNZ is that they are very passionate about women’s rugby league. They want women’s rugby league to be successful.”

The provision of stable, meaningful competition for players from across the country below the very top tier is also vital, he says.

“That is not there at the moment. But we’ll get there. And I’m very keen to be part of that. Part of the attraction of the role to me was to help create that continuum of players.”

With the next World Cup set down for England in 2020, Morgan already has a keen eye on the likely talent available to him. A largely untapped area, he believes, is Kiwi women playing in Australia in the tier below the NRLW.

He is, in fact, already compiling a comprehensive database of Aussie-based Kiwi players.

“It’s about identifying those girls and ensuring they want to represent the black and white jersey. We saw a number of Kiwis playing State of Origin. We need to phase them out of that.”

Just like his players, Morgan’s role is very much part-time. His ‘day job’ is managing a golf club at Clark’s Beach, on the shores of the Manukau Harbour, while he also commentates on Warriors matches and is a respected pundit on a number of Sky Sports platforms.

It’s fair to say this is one Aussie who has fully assimilated into New Zealand life. If it hadn’t been for his first coaching job offer coming from France, he doubts he would have left New Zealand at all following his decision to retire from playing at just 26.

“I enjoy the New Zealand way of life, I really do. It is a beautiful country. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of my national heritage being Australian, but I am an adopted Kiwi. I’ve worked with the national teams and I’ve chosen to live here on purpose.”

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