Rugby league legend Andrea Dobson is thrilled about new investment in the women’s game, but warned true progress can’t happen without first addressing fundamental problems. 

The 34-year-old is England’s most-capped international, representing her country 24 times over two decades. In 2017, her then-three-year-old daughter Marlie watched her mum captain England’s World Cup squad in New Zealand. 

Dobson is now the skipper for Super League side Featherstone Rovers, who earlier this month received a 72-0 thumping at the hands of Leeds Rhinos - a side boasting nine players on the England Women’s Performance Unit (EPU). Rovers, on the other hand, have none. 

“There’s a lot of chat about the differences in the top of the league and the bottom of the league,” explained Dobson. 

“And for us personally as a squad, we’re quite a new squad. Although we’re really disappointed with those results, I think it’s just going to take time for some of the newer squads. 

“I think the difficulty is that the England players and the EPU players have been in camp and training for the past year, while the rest of the teams haven’t been allowed access to a gym.” 

While the international squad has been able to train for months, the Super League was only given elite status by the government in March. Most women balance rugby with work and rely on public leisure facilities to stay fit, so players had to improvise during lockdown. 

Teams waited 18 long months between Leeds winning the Grand Final in October 2019 and the start of the 2021 Super League season last month. 

Plenty has changed off the pitch. The National Lottery became an official partner of the Rugby Football League (RFL) in March, with a specific focus on the women’s game, and select Super League matches will be streamed on Twitch. 

And in April, the RFL announced plans to introduce the Betfred Women’s Super League South. Its six teams - Bedford Tigers, Cardiff, Cornish Rebels, Golden Ferns, London Broncos and British Army - are set to start playing on the first weekend in June. 

Since the launch of the Super League in 2017, the RFL has also seen a 53 per cent increase in its girls and women’s playing community, something Dobson has witnessed first-hand. 

She said: “We’ve benefitted from that at Featherstone. For the first time in quite a few years, we’ve not had to do a recruitment drive. 

“I think more players from union and more players from other sports are kind of interested in getting involved because it’s going in the right direction. 

“There’s a lot to do in some aspects, but it’s certainly on the right track. 

“[The Southern League] is massive, to have a structured competition that can tie in. 

“The biggest thing for us moving forward and getting some challenging on the southern hemisphere teams is to widen the player pool, to create better competitions, and to ultimately create better players that can play for England and compete.” 

Facebook didn’t exist when Dobson made her international debut in 2003. Neither did Twitter, Instagram, or even iPhones. She feels for the current England squad, who will be subject not just to the pressures of a home World Cup in November, but everyone scrutinising them online. 

She said: “I think it’s harder for the girls now, and maybe almost a distraction with social media and so much going on around it. 

“I don’t think that will change the fact that when the girls pull on an England shirt it will mean any different to them. 

“Because no matter what sport, to represent your country is the biggest accolade, and for me it was a real dream.” 

Dobson is planning on watching the tournament, which will see the men’s, women’s and wheelchair campaigns played concurrently for the first time, “with a beer on the sideline.” 

And while she’s grateful to have retired from the international stage on her own terms two years ago, that hasn’t stopped the veteran from feeling a little wistful. 

She said: “It’s exciting times, you know. I just wish I was ten years younger.”