Source: INPHO

Simon Middleton bows out

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Simon Middleton sat back with a contented smile, his work very much done. After the best part of a decade as England head coach, it had been an emotional final week, one last game and one last trophy to win before he bowed out. It was quite the occasion for a curtain call, and quite the game, an oddly captivating fixture that fluctuated wildly, with France stirring from their slumber so brilliantly to threaten to spoil the festival feel. But Middleton and his side hasn’t been much used to losing, and England, as they always seem to come the crunch, held on.

“It would have been a disaster losing, wouldn’t it?” said Middleton. “Ultimately when you get to finals day like this, you’ve got to find a way to win. But we won with some fantastic rugby.

“It was phenomenal. We drove through Twickenham on the way in and there was a sense of excitement. We got to the stadium and there were thousands of people waiting. This is the stage where the game needs to be.

“I look back with immense pride. The game has given me just as much as I’ve given the game, without a shadow of a doubt. I couldn’t be prouder. It is a good place to step out.”

It certainly feels the right time for a regime change. To take the next step the Red Roses will need renewed drive and energy, a different perspective. It is not necessarily a reflection of Middleton’s character that those in camp have fatigued a little of his leadership. Among the reasons sustaining success can be difficult is that a degree of weariness always creeps in when the messages have been delivered in the same tones over a long period.

Middleton will confess that he did not get everything right. The two lost World Cup finals will hurt. While England have in part rationalised their 2017 loss as being beaten by a better Black Ferns team, the loss at Eden Park last November has been significant tougher to deal with, given how well the Red Roses coped with the tough hand they were played. Victory in New Zealand would have been a natural end to a journey that had seen England lead the way towards professionalism.

And that, ultimately, is what Middleton’s legacy will likely be. Perhaps you could term his timing fortunate to be able to oversee an era of such change and progress, but the coach’s high standards have kept England pushing on, and with them have come the rest of the women’s rugby world.

“I’m trying to think what my first game was but it was in front of two or three thousand fans,” Middleton reflected on how much the game had changed during his tenure. “We had to fight for grounds to play at, we had to really work hard to get our product on the field.

“I think we had a watershed moment when Doncaster welcomed us in, and that makes me really proud because that’s a massive part that Yorkshire played in the history of the Red Roses. Then Exeter got behind it, and then other clubs got behind it, and that’s when we really started to grow the game.

“But then we got the ball rolling and the guys here have done an unbelievable job. We’ve really started to push the limits of what a Red Roses game looks like. This period has culminated in today. But this has to be the benchmark now and we go forward. It’s grown hugely when you think of some of the first games we were playing to where we are now. It’s pretty exceptional.”