‘I might sack rugby off after the World Cup and just go fishing’

Unsurprisingly, they are favourites to win this year’s World Cup in New Zealand. Anything less, according to Middleton, would be a failure – although it might provide an incentive to stay in the job.

“I have thought to myself, ‘I might sack rugby off after the World Cup and just go fishing, because you only live once,” he laughs.

There are certainly parallels with England’s rich vein of form and Middleton’s own trajectory in sport, which has straddled both rugby codes. Hailing from the West Yorkshire town of Knottingley, he spent eight years juggling his own career at Castleford Tigers with work at a glassware manufacturing company. He continued the day job during his first part-time coaching role at Leeds Tykes. 

As a result, he can relate to the demands the majority of amateur players in the female game still face. “One of the ethics we have as a family is that we’ve always been really hardworking – most northern families tend to be. I think that’s certainly shaped me,” says Middleton, adding that his 85-year-old mum, Annie, is his biggest fan. “She watches every game and will ring me immediately after when I’ll be on the pitch. Genuinely, I can’t answer it but she’ll always leave me a message.” 

His first foray into the women’s game came when he was invited to a coaching session by Gary Street, his England predecessor, in the build-up to the 2010 World Cup.

“I was like, ‘Wow, these lot can play a bit.’ I ended the session and they were like, ‘What? No full contact?’ Streety was laughing his head off,” he says. “Maggie Alphonsi was going round absolutely hammering everybody. I was so impressed by their commitment.” 

‘Being pigeonholed as a female coach is dissipating now’

More than a decade on, England remain the only fully professional team in the Women’s Six Nations. Others are shuffling in that direction, but progress has been slow. Wales recently bumped 12 players onto full-time contracts and the Irish Rugby Football Union earlier this month apologised for failings in its women’s set-up. 

“I’ve hardened my attitude a bit over what the other nations should be doing,” admits Middleton, his tone suddenly sterner. “I’ve looked at it slightly differently over the last 18 months. I’m a bit like, ‘Do they look at it [women’s rugby] how we look at it? Do they go, ‘This really is as important as the men’s game?’ You’ve only got to look at the moves within the Ireland and Wales set-ups to show that things aren’t where they should be.” 

He is equally unequivocal that a first female head coach takes charge of an England women’s side in the next five to 10 years. Does he believe seven years leading England women would be just as validated in the men’s game as it is in the women’s, should he fancy a return to the former? “I’d like to think so,” he says. “Managing people and managing programmes are no different, whether it’s men’s or women’s. I do feel that the phrase ‘being pigeonholed as a female coach’ is dissipating now.” 

And so, one last question – how is his squash game? “Are you joking? My knees are shot to bits,” he laughs, eyeing the glass courts opposite us, “plus, I could do without the audience!”

Whether he likes it or not, in a pivotal year for women’s rugby, Middleton already has one.

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