Rugby World Cup: England’s Simon Middleton on his Yorkshire upbringing

Simon Middleton was assistant manager during England’s victorious 2014 World Cup campaign
Place: Eden Park, Auckland Date: October 8, Saturday Start: 04:45 BST
Coverage: Listen to BBC Radio 5 Live; follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.

If England manager Simon Middleton can relate to anything, it’s hard work.

From what he describes as “a typical working-class, working-class northern family”, the now 56-year-old balanced work in a glass factory with a rugby career for 25 years.

It is this inculcating spirit that first attracted him to England’s rugby set-up, and which has set him on a course to make history.

Middleton’s Red Roses start their World Cup campaign on Saturday as favourites.

They are the first team to win 25 Tests in a row, have not lost since 2019 and have been ranked number one in the world since November 2020.

Middleton became the first coach of a women’s team win World Rugby Coach 2021 and has won four Six Nations Grand Slams with the team in the last six years.

The hard work is paying off, and that’s why there has been a “whirlwind” around the records of the Red Roses – but the work is not finished yet.

“Is anyone working harder than these players?” he asks.

“Maybe, but if there is, I’d like to see it. I’m very proud to be a part of it.

“At the end of the day we know what the biggest goal is. I said if you want to go down as one of the greatest teams ever, we have to be successful here.”

“Connecting” with working players.

Middleton started working in a factory at the age of 16, on the same day as his final exam at school.

He started fixing pallets, worked his way up to sweeping the shop floor and worked his way up until he started training full time in 2006.

Middleton’s rise in the factory followed his rugby career as the former winger initially played in union for Knottingley, then was selected to play in the league with Castleford, before returning to union and coaching Leeds.

The England Women’s XV didn’t secure a professional contract until 2019, but says balancing her career with playing helped her understand England when she first took part in 2010.

Middleton vividly remembers the first time he saw a Red Roses training session. They were working incredibly hard and he says “that’s probably one of the reasons I connected with him so much.”

“When I came in I was really impressed with them,” he told BBC Sport.

“It was like anyone who has never seen women’s rugby, I was very impressed with the standard and most of all the players’ commitment and hard training.

“It had a lot of ingredients that I’ve always loved.”

Red Roses’ Pontefract faithful

Middleton is speaking from an Auckland hotel as England prepare to start their World Cup campaign and has traveled the world as England and GB sevens coach, but has spent most of his life in a seven-mile wedge in Yorkshire.

He laughs hard when asked if he’s considered moving away from the Pontefract area.

Born in a town called Kellington, at the age of five he drove the five miles to Knottingley, where he would eventually take a job in the factory.

At the age of 22, Middleton married his wife Janet, with whom he now has two children, and they made the two-mile jump to Pontefract in 2000.

Twickenham in London being the home of English rugby is a blessing that Middleton loves to drive.

His longevity in town has helped rally Red Roses fans at the local gym, where Middleton says he’s one of the youngest members and where supporters are committed enough to embrace New Zealand’s anti-social early days.

He jokes: “The old guys are there and they never fail to come up to me and say, ‘I’ve seen your girls play, they’re incredible. I’ve got all the times written down, I get up at night anyway’. .”

“If you work hard, you get what you want”

Simon Middleton dancing with the Six Nations trophy on his head
Middleton danced with the trophy on her head as England won the 2021 Women’s Six Nations tournament

Middleton led England to the World Cup final in 2017, but were beaten 41-32 as New Zealand claimed their fifth title.

He says it took two years to figure out what happened, but in the end, of course, the answer seemed to be harder work.

Middleton’s ‘practices of physical pressure’ are now infamous; grueling training under game conditions to test players’ mental and physical limits.

Off the field, his coaching approach has softened. The players are respected and held accountable for the side’s performance and it’s “nowadays more about the stick than the carrot”.

The tastiest carrot in world rugby is in New Zealand as England seek a place in the World Cup final on November 12.

For Middleton, a win in that match would be vindication.

He was unemployed in 2011, when he was sure he was on the verge of becoming manager of Leeds.

Middleton describes it as “one of the biggest learning points” of her life.

“Since I started getting paid to play rugby I always had two jobs,” he says.

“I went from that to not having a job at all. It was a pretty dark time. You’re with two young kids, a mortgage and no job. It was a dire situation.”

He took matters into his own hands and sent out flyers to colleges and universities offering coaching services.

This eventually led to a job as a director of rugby at a school and, having been involved with England ahead of the 2010 World Cup campaign, in 2014 he joined the XV as an assistant coach.

Reflecting on her journey, Middleton says, “I haven’t planned a proper thing in my life.

“I tend to roll with things and then react. Right from the ground up to work [glass factory] Rockware is about the family I come from and how I’ve worked hard.

“If you really work, you will get what you want in the end.”

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