Andrea started playing rugby league aged 12 in Chorley, she gained her first cap aged 16. Since those early days she has Captained her country with 3 caps for Great Britain and 24 for England.
Julia Lee chats to Andrea about her rugby league career
I started playing rugby league at high school, really, so I just always played any sport. Any sport going. It was… I’m not sure of his job title at the time, but he was some sort of youth worker, but it was Steve Swann. He had the hotel… in Castleford – is it Aysgarth? I’m not sure. And he just came and did an after-school session, cos his passion was rugby league and my PE teacher was like, can you go? She got all the girls who did the rugby – not the rugby, sorry, all the sports. And we went along to that and before the days of GDPR he took all our names and numbers and by the time I’d got home he’d rang my mum, and my mum was like, “oh, you’re going to rugby training”. Tomorrow or tonight or whatever it was and I’m like “oh no, I’m not”. Oh no, you are. So, I went, and my dad took me and sat on’t grass and waited while I played, and the rest is history really. I loved it.
I was 12, so… 99. I was in Year 8 at school. So, I was in Under 13s. And yeah, the rest is history – I’ve turned up every week since.
Out of that after school club, I think 2 or 3 of us went and played for local clubs. I think it was Pendle Panthers and it was set up like nomadically – there was no rugby league club in the area, so we played out of Nelson, Colne College, and we used their school, college pitches to play. And so, at that age, under 13s, we played festival types. At that time, it was teams like Keighley, Bradford, Rochdale – well, it was Hillside Hawks at the time. Crofton, Chorley, like those sorts of areas. And then yeah, I played 13s and then played Lancashire for 14s and 16s, women.
Pendle Panthers became a women’s team. 16s, they became a women’s team. They didn’t really have enough players, so they joined up with a team in Morecambe, which was… I can’t remember now, but we were then called Pendle Atoms. So, we did that for a season, I think, but it was just quite a long travel. It became a bit of a struggle because we had kind of ties with Hillside … and Helen and John … and they would be, they would be great people to speak to, actually.
So, I went and played for Hillside when I was 16 or 17. I went and played there until I was 20, I think. I played 4 seasons there. Cos, I moved to Leeds, I went to Uni in Leeds, I played for Wakefield. Leeds Carnegie, I went there and then played for Wakefield.
I started playing for Great Britain when I was 16. I was playing for Lancashire. In fact, that year, I played for Under 16s Lancashire and played for the women’s Lancashire. I remember because we went and played it was at Castleford Panthers – at the time it was Lancashire Yorkshire. It was like, I don’t know whether it was teachers’ team, but there was like 3 or 4 teams in it and Jackie was watching and just asked if I’d be interested in joining up for the squad.
We toured New Zealand. Auckland, yeah. That’s really bad that I don’t… I know we played Samoa in the first game and I didn’t play. It was either Newey or the Cook Islands. World Cup 2003. I was 16. Fortunately, my mate who played at Pendle got selected as well, Sarah Dixon, so I wasn’t alone. A bit daunting really.
Training was tough, to be fair. It was separate from club rugby. Long days, long weekends, you got a programme outside of it – weights and stuff. Being 16 I’d trained and stuff… It was tough, it was challenging, it was quite physical as well. Nothing compared to actually coming up and playing against them. I think that’s what…in our domestic competition even now, the opportunity to play the southern hemisphere teams regularly. We only play them like once every 4 years, and it comes to 4 years and you’ve no idea where they’re at until you’re actually stepping onto the pitch.
The step up was massive really. I think it’s just the physicality. I don’t think you realise they physicality. Cos, we don’t have, we don’t have, in our league, ever I don’t think, the… I mean just naturally physically big. The women down there are big, but they can also run, and they can also step – sometimes it looks like they’re playing touch rugby against us. You can’t get hold of them. I think it’s just the physicality. The intensity.
We went to training weekends. And then there was a week training and we used to go to… it was Halifax, down at the bottom. We used to go there on a Wednesday. My mum and dad took me because I didn’t drive. Me dad took me everywhere.
I came quite late into the programme, so I think it was March/April time and we went in November. So, it was kind of quite late in the programme and I was lucky enough that my mum and dad funded me to go, with me paying them back, but I know a lot of the lasses had to fundraise and to do different bits and bobs to raise the money.
It cost £1600. Plus, your spending money. We went for about three, three and half weeks.
I really enjoyed being on tour. And I was lucky cos I had a close friend go as well and I knew a few of the girls and stuff. I’d been with the squad long enough to feel comfortable. It’s still quite daunting at that age, because you still have that awe for the players you’re playing with. Cos when I started playing at, supposed to be 16, although I think I played at 15, some games, you kind of look at other teams and their team sheets and you think, Jane Banks plays for these, or, you know, Lisa Mack plays for these. You kind of have that awe for those players and then you’re sat with them, playing with them, it’s…. I think it was quite surreal, playing, and I think the more I played for England the more I kind of realised what it meant. I think when I first went, I didn’t see it as a holiday, but it was, “Oh, I’ve been picked, I’m going, and…” I say, we didn’t do very well. I think it’s one of those, you get to those big games and you don’t perform and you’re disappointed and some of the older girls were really upset about it and I was like, what are you crying for? It’s a World Cup. Yeah, we’ve lost, but what’s it really matter? But it’s only following World Cups when we were really struggling at times, like 2014, 2015, when we were really struggling with performances and I got upset about it because of what you’ve put into the game and what it means to you. I’ve realised why they were so upset when I was so young. And you have the same kind of battles and conversations with younger players who … You know, we lost a game in 2014 and… we didn’t lose, sorry, we drew to France. We should never have drawn to France and it was really gutting as an older player that, you know, a team who put 40 or 50 points in the past competed with us and… I was really upset and players who were new to the programme or younger players who didn’t really have that understanding weren’t upset and they were having a beer and I were just like, I couldn’t cope with it. I lost my head about it a little bit and I… But then when you look back at 2003 when the girls who’d been in that programme for 2 or 3 years before that World Cup, and we didn’t perform and they were upset, it just gave me that instant understanding of how they felt and how… Not that they must felt of me, because I wasn’t… um, what’s the word… I wasn’t celebrating, I wasn’t whatever, I was just kind of sat back and looked and just thought a little bit, but …
In the 2003 we had some awesome players Lisa Mack, Brenda Dobek, Sally Milburn, Stacey Greenwood, Danni T, Rachel Haithwaite I think, or she’s Greatorex now. Beth Sutcliffe, she’s one of my best mates. I’m trying to think who went. Carol Ann… Oh, I don’t know her surname – Lurch they used to call her. Renée… Shelley Land was a coach.
Some I’d literally watched, like a couple of years before, so I was… I must have been thirteen when I went to watch that game and then I went when I was sixteen. And you just have that awe of the players and it’s …
I next played internationally in 2007. Yeah, it was a long time after that. So, 2007 we went to France. So that was the first test as England and Joe Wardall was our coach, he was our coach at Hillside as well. Bren was the assistant coach. Bren stopped playing after 2003. She then was the assistant coach for that tour. I think we just played one game. That’s where our heritage numbers start. I must have been prop in that game cos I got number 8. It just shows the differences from then to now, because after the game we’d always have food and beer. Quite a few of us ended up getting very drunk and we turned up back to the hotel at about 4 o’clock in the morning, with an 8 o’clock breakfast to go swimming and recovery and stuff… It was not a good day that day.
You know, you’re professional about it beforehand and then after the game you kind of have a drink and… It is different now. I mean obviously, your adults and you can do what you want, but it is just a different environment to how it was then. It probably changed for the World Cup the year after. Before that, we as a group of players decided we wouldn’t have a drink and I don’t think I drank for about 6 months. So, you trained and drank, and I don’t think you were there actually, that day, but I think they made the error of letting us have a big session before… Well, that was the end of festival dinner. I think they made the error of giving us a barbecue and a few beers even before we got there, so half of us were half cut before we got there. And then after that, so Bren was coach, and she was like “you’re not allowed to drink on tour any more”. I was one of the better-behaved ones, to be fair… I think you need that though. With any team, I think you need that social bonding. We used to do it as a team, so then… [Was this Wakefield?] No, England team. So as an England team, senior players had taken it upon themselves to sort out a social evening. You know, you’d go out together. It has got a lot more professional now and what have you. You probably don’t have that as much. You don’t… Everyone plays for the clubs they play for and they socialise with them and it’s not… Yeah, it’s a tough one really, cos it not… Like when I, I was in the England set, I was, I was playing for Wakefield but some of my closest friends – Beth played at Warrington, Kirsty was at Bradford, so you just kind of… Your closest friends played around the different clubs and it was easier to have that kind of team cohesion. Yeah, we weren’t allowed to drink after that.
2009 we went to France. Toulouse, I think. I get confused with the South of France. Went to Toulouse 2009, played two tests, I think. I think we played France every year. 2010 we went back to New Zealand. We played three tests against them. We played their Maori side and then two tests against the Kiwis and we got absolutely battered. Pretty much. We drew against their Maori side, who literally, I think, just went in to be physical and rough us up a little bit. And then, yeah, they put forty points past us in those two games and then I was dropped after that, so I wasn’t selected the year after. Controversially, I say.
You know, you go through the stages… I mean I like Bren, I get on with her, she was my Featherstone coach, but there was a few things we didn’t see eye to eye on…
So, 2010, we played… You know what? I hold my hands up. I was carrying far too much weight. I still did the training, but I wasn’t fit enough. Even though I could still compete – I’ve got that game on DVD. There was few of us that were carrying a bit much weight and if I look back, I probably wasn’t enjoying it as much. And that’s no excuse to… whatever, but me and Bren didn’t see eye to eye on a few things and there were a couple of us dropped after that tour. Bren also left after that tour and then Anthony Sullivan came in after that for a year. They then sort of got the EIS programme, so they had the funding off EIS for us to go and train and because all the lasses were my friends and everything, they said for EIS I had to go and train with them. So, I just carried on training, lost about 2 stone and then got back in the squad the year afterwards. Anthony Sullivan did it for a year, then Steve McCormack, so I went back playing after a year. So, 2012, I think. Then Steve McCormack did it 2012-2013. He left early on in 2013 and then came in 3 months before the World Cup. And then they cut EIS about 2 months before the World Cup. So yeah, we’d literally trained for a couple of years and then they cut it.
I think in terms of organisational setup and like celebration of women’s rugby, I think 2008 were, was brilliant. Even though it still wasn’t a priority like it is today, in Australia, even like the welcoming ceremony and the closing ceremony, it was good.
I have 24 England caps and then I’ll have three Great Britain ones.
I’ve never scored for England. Never, ever. D ’you know what? Like, I used to, not in a big-headed way at all, but I used to, especially playing at Featherstone and Wakefield, I used to score for fun. I’ve never scored for England. Shows what the difference is, for the international games.
In 2013 the World cup was in England. That was a great experience, to have your World Cup at home, in Leeds. It means your family and friends can come and watch and yeah, it was good. Where were we based? It was the Novotel. Not in the negative or whatever, but probably not as good as what the others put on in 2008. I think there were a few bits that, not disappointed me, but I think it’s difficult when you have something to compare to… I think the next one is obviously, hopefully, going to be a massive event, a showcase event. But like I say, that year was genuinely the year I thought we could have won the World Cup. Obviously, we had that game against Australia. Disappointing, but it is what it is, you can’t change it. It’s funny because we saw that referee in Starbucks in town the next day…
Do you know what? If I was to pick a game, that was probably one of the best games I’ve played. One against the Kiwis at Featherstone. Just the atmosphere at the club, and there were quite a few people watching it and we were in that game, you know, it were 16 all ten minutes to go and they just ran away with it with a couple of tries in the last 10 minutes, but… Again, genuinely, for me if we’d beaten Australia in that game where we could have done, we could have played right through to the final and I think we could have given them a real run for their money. Very physical, very… It was just a good game. Yeah, we lost, but it’s just a game that really sticks out because of the atmosphere. The love and the support we get from the clubs over here is just something else. You know we’ve never had that, you know, when we played in 2017 in Australia, they had the games in the afternoon when people were at work and there wasn’t a lot of people watching at all. As a group, we had a lot of family come out and watch, quite a big amount of support from the family, but there wasn’t a lot of people watching at all. It just felt a bit empty. It was televised, and that was spot on, but I don’t think you get support anywhere else in the world like you do here.
Imagine at the 2021 World Cup, when they’re at the bigger stadiums and they’re …
I started playing for Wakefield Panthers in 2008. That year of the World Cup. I joined them then. I don’t know how long after that it became Featherstone. It must have been about three or four years after that it became Featherstone.
The Wakefield days was good, when Bren was coach, she was a good coach as well. We had 10 or 11 players in the England set up at that time, and that wasn’t because Bren was the coach, that was because they were the best team, the best players. I think we went through a season – we really struggled for numbers, but we went through a season with 10 people, 10 players, but we still won, we were still unbeaten with 10 players. It’s ridiculous in ’t it? And again, it’s reputation. From being a kid and growing up, looking at women and whose teams and who does she play for and Wakefield just always had the reputation. It was Wakefield and Bradford and Wakefield always won. Bradford were kind of the nearly team – they used to get to the finals and get beaten. There was just that massive rivalry, but back then you, every, every game you could beat everybody, comfortably. There was always a Bradford game, always two or three games a season you look forward to, cos you’d actually be challenged. Sure, we beat them mind, but you’d be challenged. And they were like the stalwarts of women’s rugby league. Wakefield and Bradford were just the teams to beat and the teams where all the best players were. And because there was never any social media, there was never anything…
You ask a player now who the best women’s team in Super League is, I don’t even know what they’d say. It could be St Helen’s or whatever, but it’s… It’s just psychology, it’s hard to explain – there’s just that gap in ‘t there? They’ve kind of gone from this is women’s rugby league to now we’re going to do this. They’ve kind of shut the door to everything that’s been and started from, the Women’s Super League started from … Which is really good, because it’s putting the sport out there, but that’s why this is good because it’s for those women that put so much in, on a voluntary basis, having to pay to do it – just having that recognition.
Yeah. Fighting those battles. Playing and challenging. There’s women before me who had to pay to go on tour, so they allowed me to play and to do that.
It is different now. Obviously, Brenda left, we got a new coach, its kind of coincided with the start of the new Women’s Super League. We were kind of going through a tough transitional period where we probably had 11-12 players and were struggling. You know, do you stay a club, do you try and rebuild, do you leave? 4 or 5 players chose to leave and go and play for other Super League clubs, which left us really struggling. I’m just, I’m just loyal to that club and I’d rather stay and help and rebuild than just leave. I’m just not… that isn’t me. You know, even playing for England you know, people say go and play for another club, more for an individual reason, but I just, I just didn’t fancy it to be honest. But we’re in a better place – there’s good links now with Feath Lions and the local community and there’s a foundation that’s doing a great job and we’re not short of players. We’re not doing very well, but I think it’s one to watch for the future. You know, out of a starting 13 at one point we had 6, they were 16, 17, you know, in pivotal roles. Our hooker’s 16, our centres and wings are 16, our fullback’s 17 – it’s … You know, the good players for the future, they’re really good. It’s just that tough transition – this is girls’ rugby, this is women’s rugby, this is Super League. It’s a good place to be. We’ve got a good coach, a good enthusiastic set of players now. Everything’s there – we just need to build and improve. I would much rather lose every week, having a team that’s going to develop and have the right attitude, than go and play for another Super League team where players go there because they want to win. I’m not that fussed.
I want to carry on playing at Featherstone. I enjoy it. To be honest, there’s less pressure now. You’ve always got at the back of your mind, even in your social calendar, planning ahead with your annual leave and childcare and everything, you’ve always got in the back of your mind, do I need to save some annual leave for that, how long’s that going to be? And then you’ve got your training days and weekends and… I’m one of these people, if I commit to something it’s 100% or not at all and reflecting on it, I just think it were the right time to leave. I’ll carry on playing at Featherstone and the aim, I’ve discussed it with Johnny our coach, is to probably help with the coaching in the next couple of years and I’d love to stay involved in the women and girl’s pathway at some point in the near future. And still be a part of it.
I say this quite openly. I think Hillside was probably the best club that I played for. Not in terms of success because when I was at Hillside we had Bradford and Wakefield and we were the… There was Bradford, Wakefield and then we were third. We always got beat by those two teams. Although we did beat them once or twice, we were kind of always third, but there’s players now that I played with at Hillside that are best… Jenny Wellesby, who plays at St Helen’s, Nicky Molyneux who’s just come back playing, she plays at Wigan now, Terri Davy who played at Rochdale and there’s a lot of players who came from that. You know, one of my best friends, that I still see a lot, Hannah Robinson, she played at Rochdale when I was at Pendle and there was always that rivalry, but we became friends, even though we was on a separate team, and she was bridesmaid at my wedding and it’s just that… Helen and John Cobb at Hillside, I think again, it goes unnoticed because it’s not put out there anymore. They don’t have an involvement in the game anymore, but you could speak to 4 or 5 people about those two people. And they weren’t just about rugby. There were kids who played at Hillside who struggled, struggled with their home life, and they took them in, they looked after them. There were kids who, parents weren’t involved, they’d go and pick them up, they’d feed them – you know what I mean? It were just more to them than rugby.
I moved clubs, you know, for personal reasons, you know, where I was living and things like that. But my fondest memories are of playing at Hillside and you should definitely speak to those two people. It were more than rugby for them. You can speak to my friend Hannah, she’ll … She’d probably be really good. She was playing at Hillside and she broke her back quite badly, but she got back playing for the under 21s. Helen and John were really prevalent in her life as well and people like that need to be recognised. You could ask a lot of people who are still playing rugby now and it’ll come back to those two.
And I have really fond memories of Hillside because of my dad. My dad passed away in 2014 and he took me, religiously, every single week. And I had a couple of friends and their parents weren’t really bothered and he used to pick them up and take them. He’d never miss a game. He’d always be there. The last game he came to watch was the 2013 World Cup, but I wasn’t playing, but it was quite nice, so I got to go and sit with him and watch the game… I just have those fond memories of him taking me and it’s …
They’re not going any more Hillside, there was Rochdale… It was actually classed as Oldham St Anne’s Women’s, but it came from the junior section not Hillside. Heather Biggs played there – she were phenomenal. Get her a bit of steam up her and you don’t want her running at you, do you? It was probably one of my fondest memories, like, teams to play for.
I could sit and chat to you all day about rugby…
I have fond memories of the Lancashire Yorkshire stuff. I don’t think we have that any more. When we were kids we were playing in Lancashire under 14s under 16s women, it was – they were the best games to play in, the best games. You know like it were always won by 2 or 4 points. I always remember I got back from holiday that day, because we went and played and Hannah actually scored the winning try in that game and Saima Hussain who used to play at Keighley, she literally kicked the ball on her own try line, full length, I think this were when it were about 10 all or something like that, full length, but she put the ball down on the wrong line, she put the ball down about 5m from the try line: one of our players picked it up, ran it back, we scored last minute to win it. I do remember that time. Obviously, she were gutted, but… Those games were… They do the origin now, but I don’t think it has the same passion – there’s summat about playing for your county. I once had to play for Yorkshire. I weren’t very happy about that. But I did it once. It is mad. Rugby – I’m now 32 – but rugby has been a big part of my life since I were 12. 20 years now. And I think especially now my dad’s passed away it’s kind of that, not a link, but it were something that I did with him and he was always really proud about me playing and my mum would never shut up – she’d tell anybody, she’d tell them in the line at Asda, she’d tell them that I played for England. It’s nice.