By Troy Whittaker
After a stellar NSWRL Harvey Norman U/18s Tarsha Gale Cup season that included a premiership and the Player of the Year award, Sharks star Madison Higgins-Ashby is proving one of the brightest prospects in rugby league.
However, any extra attention she receives won't phase her: Higgins-Ashby has long been earmarked for sporting greatness. She was touted as a future Rugby 7s Olympian at age 13, has represented Australia in touch football, 7s and OzTag, and is also an accomplished mixed martial artist.
The 17-year-old was a vital cog in the undefeated Sharks side this season. Using her scorching speed and exceptional playmaking vision, she bagged an incredible 18 tries in 10 games and set up many more.
Higgins-Ashby was again impressive in last Saturday's 32-22 Grand Final win over the Newcastle Knights, scoring a crucial four-pointer in the first half, and won't be forgetting the emotion of the day any time soon.
"It was an extraordinary feeling, honestly. All of the hard effort and work the girls put in through the year really paid off winning that last game," she said.
Receiving the tournament's Player of the Year award, presented by Tarsha Gale herself, capped off the team success for Higgins-Ashby. The achievement came as no surprise to anyone who witnessed her astounding on-field feats, but it caught the modest teenager off guard.
"I was honestly very shocked, but I was very happy at that moment. I just felt like everything worked out well. It was unexpected to get that award," Higgins-Ashby admitted.
While the 2018 season was her first at the Sharks, it didn't take long for Higgins-Ashby to thrive in new surroundings; something she credits her teammates and coaches for.
"The Sharks environment, it's so good," she said. "When I first came here everyone was very open-armed and welcoming to me, and throughout the year the staff and the support systems were just phenomenal."
Tarsha Gale Cup coach, Colin Dodd, was glowing in his appraisal of what Higgins-Ashby brought to the playing group.
"I've known Madi for a lot of years and watched her grow as a player in a lot of sports. It was great to have her as part of the team and I know she had that leadership [ability]," Dodd said.
"With her skills and the way she plays the game – it's just so good to have someone like that who can steer the ship around as well."
While Higgins-Ashby's freakish try-scoring efforts are featured on all the highlight clips, Dodd believes it's her passing ability that puts her in elite company.
"She can throw that long pass – in the Grand Final and even in the season we had a few good tries scored out wide [off Madison]," he said.
"She hits the line, runs a bit wide and drags the defence in. She always seems to either find a hole or deliver that great ball outside."
Higgins-Ashby first took up rugby league as a 7-year-old, when her father grew tired of her requests for canteen money during her brothers' matches and allowed her to play.
She was instantly hooked on the sport but, like many girls, was forced to stop playing before her 13th birthday because of age restrictions. The Tarsha Gale Cup finally provided a chance for Higgins-Ashby to play the game she loves at representative level.
"I believe that the Tarsha Gale comp is the first step in showing how important rugby league is to girls," she explained. "It's the first step in expressing that it's equal rights compared to the boys and that girls can do the same things they can."
On the back of her recent rugby league achievements, Higgins-Ashby is now looking to tick off some lofty goals in the senior ranks.
"Hopefully women's rugby league becomes a bit more professional and the Sharks get a team eventually [in the NRL Holden Women's Premiership], because I would like to play for the Sharks in the women's," she said.
"Hopefully throughout playing in the next couple of years I might make the Jillaroos with a couple of my Tarsha Gale girls."
With her raw talent and level-headed demeanor, it's likely only a matter of time before Madison Higgins-Ashby does just that.