It was during a training session at Twickenham earlier this month that Simon Middleton gathered his England squad together to tell them he would be stepping down as coach after the 2023 Women’s Six Nations.
Speaking to his players on the halfway line, Middleton asked them to imagine the empty green seats that surrounded them filled for the Rugby World Cup 2025 final with 82,000 fans.
Later, in the changing room, he informed them that he would no longer be involved with the team on its journey towards that destination.
“What was the reaction? Probably relief from a few,” Middleton joked earlier this week.
The decision had been a difficult one to take, made following conversations with the Rugby Football Union’s performance director, Conor O’Shea.
Ultimately, he concluded that following nine years with the squad, the players would benefit from hearing a different voice. He was also ready for a new challenge.
Red Roses head coach Simon Middleton will step down from his role after the 2023 TikTok Women's Six Nations.#ThankYouMidds— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 6, 2023
Although a second successive Rugby World Cup final defeat to New Zealand, at Eden Park on 12 November, stung, it did not influence Middleton’s decision. On the contrary, he admitted the lure of coaching England at RWC 2025 almost convinced him to stay.
“Going into , you start to think about what it's going to look like after the World Cup, because one way or another, there'll be big decisions to be made after a World Cup,” Middleton said.
“And I always thought, win or lose, to go again would be a big decision for the RFU, but also a big decision for myself, because nine years in the seat is a long time, you know.
“I think if they hadn't have announced that the 2025 World Cup was going to be in England, my thought process going into this World Cup would have been very clear and that would have been, 'it will be time'. I'm pretty sure it would be time.
“Obviously they made that decision and that puts a different slant on it. But you're thinking about it all the way through because… you know what decisions are going to have to be made after a World Cup, it's a new cycle and everything like that.
“So, it was an ongoing thought process in the back of your mind for a long time, but it gets accelerated as you come off [RWC 2021]. Sunday the 13th [November, the day after the final], that got me reflecting quite a bit.
“But then you know the emotions are pretty raw for a long time after that and you've got to take some time and I've had that time and I was still pretty much, ‘yeah, it's probably time for a new challenge now’ because that buzz should be there and it's not.”
Rugby World Cup regret
Middleton began working with England as an assistant coach ahead of their victorious RWC 2014 campaign, the same year he started coaching the country’s women’s team on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
He graduated to head coach in 2015, initially in a joint role with sevens, and has since taken England to Rugby World Cup finals in 2017 and 2022, won five Six Nations titles and led the team on a record 30-match winning run.
“The 2014 World Cup was fantastic. To enter into the programme and have such an involvement in that and just to be fully involved with coaching your country at that point was absolutely massive,” Middleton said.
“The flip side of that being 2017 and in particular last year, which were huge disappointments and regrets. I regret not winning another two World Cups, that's for absolute sure.
“But other things away from the 15s side, to be involved in the sevens – which was a game I’d never even really played that much, never mind coached – and then end up going to Rio was fantastic.”
Middleton remembers last year’s Women’s Six Nations win against France in Bayonne with fondness – “an incredible game” – and chuckles about the time he brought on all eight replacements at once against the same opposition at Twickenham.
But added to those memories are “loads of little things”. “Just working with different players and working with different members of staff, millions and millions of really funny moments that we've shared as a group on the field and off the field,” he said.
Looking to the future
The World Rugby Coach of the Year 2021 revealed this week that pregnant England second-row Abbie Ward will work alongside forwards coach Louis Deacon during the Women’s Six Nations.
And he urged the RFU to throw their weight behind developing female coaches for the future.
“From an English point of view, now is the time to really go after the female coaching,” he said. “You’ve got a generation of players and a lot of them have lived through almost a decade of professional rugby.
“I know the contracts haven’t been full-time for that long but there’s been a significant influence in terms of what professionalism looks like within the programme.
“A lot of players have lived through that now, so they are very well-prepared to step into coaching, if they choose to. From that point of view, there is some excellent coaching potential and we’ve got to grow that side of it.”
Ball-in-play time increased during RWC 2021, while winning margins across the pool phase were reduced from an average of 37 points in 2017 to 26 in New Zealand.
Middleton, though, is mindful that more needs to be done to “make sure the next World Cup and certainly the World Cup after that becomes far more competitive”.
“We’ve got to close the gap,” he said. “It’s got to be [about] investment because it’s a simple fact that if you want to develop a programme you have to add expertise, you have to add resource into there and to do that, you’ve got to invest into the programmes.”
On Wednesday it was announced that backs coach Scott Bemand would be stepping down at the same time as Middleton, although fellow assistant Deacon will continue until RWC 2025.
Bar devoting more time to his angling, Middleton remained non-committal about what the future holds for him beyond the Women’s Six Nations.
For now, his energies are being channelled towards delivering a fifth Grand Slam for his country. It is fitting that his final match in charge will be against France at Twickenham.
“It's a great stage,” he said. “But listen, it's a great stage for the team. It's our first standalone [match] at Twickenham, great ticket sales already, it's got the potential to be a fantastic game.
“We've got to get all the other bits right first and then we'll see what that looks like.
“You know, I couldn't think of a better place to exit [than] at Twickenham, but it ain't going to be about me, it's going to be about that occasion and hopefully us being in a position where we can try and go for a Grand Slam.”