Simon Middleton, the Red Roses head coach who guided England on a record-breaking 30-match winning streak before losing last year’s Rugby World Cup final to New Zealand, will step down following this year’s Women’s Six Nations.
Middleton is contracted until June this year but his resignation looked ominous ever since England, who were favourites to win the World Cup, were agonisingly pipped to the trophy by the Black Ferns in an historic final at Eden Park.
The 57-year-old looked utterly crestfallen when he fronted up to the media the following day after his side’s 34-31 defeat in Auckland, admitting: “I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
It was the second time Middleton had to watch his side fall short in women’s rugby’s showpiece event, having also guided England to the World Cup final five years earlier in Belfast, where they were also beaten by New Zealand.
Despite twice losing on the biggest stage, Middleton is widely regarded as one of the Red Roses’ best coaches, having guided England to five Six Nations titles and four Grand Slams during his eight-year tenure in charge of the side at a time of prolific growth of the sport.
He also played a hugely influential role in convincing the RFU to professionalise the England women’s team and in 2019 the body led the way after unveiling 32 full-time XVs contracts, becoming the first union in the world to do so.
There had been speculation over whether the 57-year-old would lead England at a home World Cup in 2025, but Middleton has since decided to step away from the role after this year’s Six Nations. Forwards coach Louis Deacon and backs coach Scott Bemand will also remain in their roles for the championship.
'The right time for someone to take over with new ideas'
In a statement published by the RFU on Monday, Middleton said he was “proud and fortunate” to have been involved in the sport during a prolific period of growth for the female game.
He added: “Do I regret not signing off winning the World Cup as a head coach? Yes for sure, but I know we can all live with that because we could not have worked harder or given more, sometimes that’s just not quite enough and it wasn’t on the day.
“I know last year’s World Cup campaign was and continues to be celebrated and quite rightly so - the bravery and commitment of the players in that game was exceptional and is to be admired. They are an excellent group of players, but more importantly amazing people and I know they will continue to be successful.
“I know there is a robust process to get the right person to take over and I am naturally 100% committed until we get to that point. This is definitely the right time for someone to take over at the helm with new ideas, and a different voice for players to get inspired by.
“Now our attention turns to being able to perform as well as we can with the goal of winning the Six Nations. It’s a really exciting tournament, culminating in a match against France at Twickenham in front of a huge crowd which will be an inspiring and incredible occasion for everyone.”
Middleton joined the RFU in 2014 and led the England Women Sevens on the World Series, as well as taking a role as assistant coach for the 2014 Rugby World Cup in France, where England were crowned champions.
He was awarded an MBE for services to rugby football in June 2021 and, having guided the Red Roses through an unbeaten calendar year, became the first coach of a women’s side to scoop World Rugby’s coach of the year award.
Conor O’Shea, the RFU’s performance director, indicated Middleton’s successor would be announced after this year’s Six Nations. “I know how motivated Simon is to finish his time with the Red Roses on a high with a successful Women’s Six Nations campaign,” he said. “When the time comes, we will give him the send-off he deserves but until then his focus will be on preparing the team for that first game of the Six Nations against Scotland at Kingston Park.
“Simon will be a massive influence and addition to whatever environment he goes to next and we will wish him well when the time comes for him to move on.”
Middleton is a man of integrity but he couldn’t deliver when it mattered
The writing was on the wall for Simon Middleton when England lost this year’s World Cup final against the Black Ferns in New Zealand. The Red Roses head coach had set his stall out from the start: anything less than winning the trophy would constitute a failure for his team of invincibles. He was unequivocal in that regard. Ultimately, it cost him his job.
That his team could not clinch the win that mattered the most in the heat of an electrifying final was confirmation that the Red Roses would need a new direction in coaching set-up.
What will Middleton be remembered for? Three consecutive Six Nations titles (four if you count the Covid-hit shortened edition in 2020), that famous win over New Zealand in Rotorua in 2017 which was a rare win for England on Kiwi soil.
He oversaw his side’s 30-game winning streak en route to this year’s World Cup final - a record which is unlikely to ever be broken by a male or female Test side - and he was the first head coach of a women’s team to be crowned World Rugby’s coach of the year.
Middleton is a people person and a man of great integrity who took his job extremely seriously. He understood that his remit was not just to be a coach but as someone who could be an ambassador for the women’s game and play a part in growing its profile. He developed an outward, approachable relationship with the media and his passion for the job shone through.
But his reign will ultimately always be viewed through the prism of two consecutive World Cup final defeats to New Zealand. The World Cup was the piece of silverware that remains missing in the trophy cabinet, the one that got away.
In the aftermath of that pulsating final, Bill Sweeney, the RFU chief executive, sensed Middleton’s days were numbered and quickly confirmed the coach succession planning for the women is “exactly the same process” as the men’s.
But how seriously have the RFU taken England’s World Cup post-mortem? The sacking of Eddie Jones and the parachuting of Steve Borthwick into the England men’s head coach role - not to mention the unpopular waist-height tackle saga of last month - have been two major distractions for the governing body of late. As a result, the scrutiny upon Middleton has not been as intense as it might have otherwise been and England's failure to win a World Cup final at the second time of asking has slinked somewhat under the radar. In the RFU’s defence, the pool of coaches who could take over its women’s national side is hardly a vast one, which could explain why the body has been biding its time.
What is more certain is that England will be under extraordinary pressure to bring it home in 2025 and there is a feeling that had he won in Auckland, the carrot dangling to defend a World Cup on home soil would have been too good for Middleton to pass up.
But the man who took an English rugby team on their greatest ever run will most likely be watching from afar.