STOOD next to the Steve Prescott Man of Steel Ben Barba, in front of numerous television crews and with camera flashes going off in every direction, Castleford Tigers’ Georgia Roche admitted not quite knowing what to make of it all.
She had just been named the first winner of the Woman of Steel award in Manchester earlier this week, celebrating the best player in the Women’s Super League.
The Rugby Football League’s media department, quite rightly, wanted to get an image of the inaugural victor lined up alongside the far more recognisable Australian superstar; hopefully it will become an annual tradition.
Few could have imagined following the Man of Steel’s inception in 1977, when Leeds hooker David Ward was hailed the best player in the domestic game, that just over 40 years later there would be a female version.
However, the women’s game is growing and, in only the second season of its Super League competition, its profile is growing with it.
Gaining such recognition, and sharing the stage with the stars of the men’s game, will only help advance it further.
Loose-forward Roche, just 18 years old and a surprise winner, said: “Hopefully it will make people realise, push forward and realise their own potential.
“It might make them want to be better and make the young girls coming through – like the Under-12s and Under-14s – want to continue playing rugby as, with some girls, they get to a certain age and think, ‘that’s it, I’ve had enough now’.
“They might start getting partners and things like that and it can go off on a tangent. But they can realise now the sport is becoming a bigger deal and things are starting to change.
“The men are getting behind the women a lot more so, hopefully, fingers crossed, the girls will realise, stick with it and then it will be a bigger thing in the future.
From someone not expecting it at all, I was very shocked – overwhelmed. I didn’t even expect to even be on the shortlist.Georgia Roche
“Hopefully we’ll have a Young Player of the Year, and a Hit Woman award (top tackler) and things like that.”
Just four Super League clubs – Castleford, Leeds, Saints and Wigan – had sides in the women’s competition this season with Bradford Bulls, Featherstone Rovers and York City Knights the other teams involved.
However, RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer says all 12 “founder” clubs aim to take part by 2021.
But back to Barba. Roche conceded posing for that picture alongside the St Helens full-back was rather surreal.
“I wish someone else could tell you exactly how I feel as I don’t know myself,” said the No 13, who hails from Birstall.
“Being stood there next to such a fantastic player, who I’ve watched throughout Super League in different games.... and being a Leeds fan I’ve watched him play against Leeds and I’ve watched him play against Cas.
“I’ve seen a fair few of his games and he is just amazing. The things he pulls out are just unreal. Sometimes, I just think ‘where’s that come from?’
“I still can’t describe it. It doesn’t feel real yet.”
Although Barba was the overwhelming favourite to be named Man of Steel in a year where he finished Super League’s top try-scorer and mesmerised fans with some of his silky play, Roche’s success was less expected.
She was on the shortlist for the award – chosen by a poll of every Women’s Super League player – alongside her more experienced Castleford team-mate Tara-Jane Stanley and Leeds Rhinos’ captain Lois Forsell.
Roche conceded: “From someone not expecting it at all, I was very shocked – overwhelmed.
“Being so young and up against two obviously phenomenal players – both have caps for England and Lois is the captain of Leeds, which says it all – I honestly didn’t expect it.
“To be fair, I didn’t even expect to be on the shortlist.
“That on its own is a massive achievement for somebody so young so I’m just overwhelmed and just can’t wait for next season now.”
Roche has enjoyed a brilliant debut campaign with Castleford, having joined from Dewsbury Moor.
She gained selection for Yorkshire in the Origin side that narrowly lost out to Lancashire last month and also scored four tries in a player-of-the-match display during Castleford’s Challenge Cup semi-final win over York City Knights.
This led to Tigers’ maiden Challenge Cup final appearance with Roche scoring again against Leeds before, ultimately, falling to a narrow 20-14 defeat.
In the league Castleford finished fourth and lost out again to Leeds in the semi-finals and it is Rhinos who will face Wigan in tomorrow’s women’s Grand Final.
But Roche said: “I’ve loved it this season.
“I started playing when I was five or six years old at Drighlington, up until 11.
“Then I went to Birstall Victoria Under-12s before – as a team – we transferred to Batley.
“I left Batley to join Dewsbury Moor where I played up until last season.
“That’s when I got brought down to Cas in the pre-season and this is my first season with them in the Super League. It’s great.”