In terms of candidates to help push the Sakura 15s push forward, the Japan Rugby Football Union have landed one of the biggest in appointing top coach and keen angling enthusiast Simon Middleton as high performance advisor.
Named World Rugby Coach of the Year in 2021, Middleton won five Grand Slams and six Women’s Six Nations titles in his seven-year reign as England's head coach.
The most recent title came less than four months ago, in front of a record-breaking crowd of 58,498 as fans packed into the Twickenham stands to witness history in the making and a thrilling 38-33 win over France.
Since taking on the lead role in 2016, Middleton turned the Red Roses into the most dominant team in world rugby with a Rugby World Cup win as the only thing missing from his stellar CV after two final defeats.
But rather than bow out and go fishing permanently, Middleton decided it wasn’t a career change he wanted, just a different challenge in rugby.
Conversations with World Rugby’s Women’s High Performance Manager Nicky Ponsford, his old boss at the RFU, had started during the delayed Rugby World Cup 2021 when Middleton made it known to her that he would soon be stepping down as Red Roses head coach and was considering his options.
“There were a couple of full-time positions that were very appealing but not what I was looking for, I definitely didn’t want to get back into full-time coaching – certainly not as a head coach at that point – and the other option was consultancy work, dropping into high performance programmes and trying to help them along,” he said.
“Japan jumped off the page because it is such a different culture. I had met (Sakura 15s head coach) Lesley McKenzie in person previously and I was really impressed with her as a coach and as a person.”
Having worked at the very top of the women’s game, Middleton is excited at the prospect of helping one of women’s rugby's fastest-emerging nations fulfil their “massive potential”.
WXV – "a brilliant concept"
The 57-year-old, from Yorkshire, first linked up with Japan when he assisted McKenzie in their 72-0 win against Kazakhstan in the Asia Rugby Women’s Championship final at the end of May which also secured them qualification for WXV 2.
He is currently in Spain with the team for their two-test tour and will stay involved until the conclusion of WXV 2, the second level of World Rugby’s new global women’s competition, on 28 October.
As well as the host nation South Africa, Scotland’s place in the six-team line-up was confirmed through their fourth-place finish in the Women’s Six Nations with Samoa joining them as Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship winners in June. The remaining two spots will be filled later this month.
Middleton feels WXV will be integral to the improvement of the Sakura 15s as it means more regular matches against teams of a similar standard.
“I think it is a brilliant concept, not just for tier two and tier three teams, I think tier one needed it desperately, too, because I think the more games you get against southern hemisphere sides the better,” he said.
“When you look at tier one, I think it is a great opportunity for Canada to kick on from the World Cup and for Wales to test themselves on the next level on a more consistent basis.
“As for tier two/tier three, there is some perception that to improve as a team you need to be playing against the likes of England, New Zealand and France to move forward.
“But at this moment in time, we (Japan) don’t need that. A test every now and again is good but what you have to do is crack the middle ground first and WXV gives you an opportunity to do that, and sort of ‘build your innings’ at the level you are at, or just above you, before you think of maybe looking to move up to the next level.
“For Japan, when you look at the World Cup games, for 60 minutes against Italy and for 60 minutes against the USA, they were in a great position but just couldn’t finish the game off, and against Canada, they were competitive but were clearly a distance off.
“WXV will allow for more consistent games in a competitive scenario where you can really build your game. You don’t just want to be just measuring your defence, put it that way.”
Enhancing Japan's 'super-strengths'
Talking of defence, a speciality of Middleton’s harking back to his days as a coach at Leeds two decades ago, he feels Japan are almost without peers from a technical point of view.
And now through his role as a consultant, he hopes to help them close the gap in other areas, too, so that the Sakura 15s can emulate the Brave Blossoms and take down some of the highest-ranked teams and push for Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.
“I think they are going to have to be tactically very good and really play to their strengths, and this is where Lesley is very good because there is a physical disparity against most teams which will take some time to breech because of where the programmes are in terms of their development and also because of the physiology of the Japanese players,” he said.
“But one of the things that really impressed me when I hooked up with them in Kazakhstan is how technically good they are at their strengths; they are good defensively – as good as any team I’ve seen, technically – better than England, better than any team I coached.
“The skills are really good, the catch and pass and things like that, so there are a few strengths in there, that they make super-strengths. I think the potential is massive.
“Like most programmes, they have a number of challenges, and most revolve around player pool size. Like most tier two sides they share players with sevens, and sevens is very much part of the Japanese programme, Olympic qualification etc. is one of their top priorities.
“But that’s one of the things that I can, hopefully, help to influence because it is stuff we have lived through – how you use your players; how you schedule and you plan and prioritise so you give yourself the best chance to have your best players available for the big tournaments; how you make sure you manage players appropriately because, in terms of workload and the physiology of the game, sevens and 15s are very different.”
Closing the gap is key
Having spent the last seven years striving to make sure England kept everyone else trailing in their wake, Middleton knows that for the international women’s game to keep moving in an upward trajectory, the rest of the world needs to make up ground on the three “big-hitters” as he calls the Red Roses, New Zealand and France.
“I think Canada showed at the World Cup that if they can increase their strength in depth a little bit, particularly in the backline, they are pretty close to being a consistent threat because they have got a pack to match anyone in the world,” he said.
“It is great to see Wales start to close the gap. They are a good example of what you can do if you can get behind a programme. I have just spent a couple of weeks with (the WRU’s) Ioan Cunningham and Huw Bevan (at a World Rugby conference in Los Angeles) and they are so excited about their programme and you can see what is happening there.
“If we can get in some of the nations below that and turn that top three into a top-six/top-eight – I’d love to see PAC4 become PAC6 – where people are vying against each other, the game will be much better for it.”
First of all, Japan will be looking to make their mark against Spain, a team they may well be facing in WXV 2 if Las Leonas see off Italy in a European play-off.
It is 21 years since they last played Spain, around the time Middleton was hanging up his boots after a dual-code career as a winger. That game, like the first nine years previous, did not go well. Japan failed to score a single point in either fixture, which ended in 32-0 and 62-0 defeats.
But the Japan team now is light years ahead of the one back then, and they are actually one place and a couple of rating points better off than Las Leonas in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, sitting just outside of the top 10.
“As a playing group, we’ll see if we can take some of the stuff against Kazakhstan, when we trained and when we played against them, and see how that stacks up against stronger opposition,” Middleton said.
“There are about half-a-dozen new players that Lesley has brought in so it is about looking at the quality of the players across the breadth of the squad.
“From my point of view, it will be continuing to get to know the staff and how the staff work. We have talked about a few things from Kazakhstan that we want to look at, about how we work as a management group and ultimately, that is the essence of my role.
“I will also be doing some coaching because there are a couple of holes in the coaching group that need filling just for now, in terms of the backs, and I am working with Lesley on some of the areas that she has identified as not her strengths but wants to get stronger at.”
Supporting the growth of the game
After the emotional high of leading England to more glory after a match for the ages against France and what he describes as “the pinnacle of his career”, Middleton could have easily opted for a quieter life, on a riverbank somewhere, but he remains driven to help put women’s rugby in an even better place.
“The final day against France was amazing, it was one of, if not the best, days I have had in rugby. That was a real pinnacle as such but you get to a point where you need a new challenge and to see different things and this is it,” he said.
“There are so many different aspects to it – the language barrier, the cultural stuff, the physiology of the side, the different skill sets of the side … it all adds up to a really good challenge and an exciting scenario.
“This particular option was great because not only is it different it also enables you to use what you have learnt to support others.
“I wanted to go in lower down. Other than win a World Cup I don’t think there was much more I could do as a head coach or influence from the top, so I thought it would be great to go back in at a lower level and support one of those programmes and see if I can make a difference and help close the gap and make it a better game all-round.”