Simon Middleton: Life after England, time in Japan and WXV a 'great concept'

Middleton recently spent six months working with Japan
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

The last 12 months have been quite a whirlwind for former Red Roses Head Coach Simon Middleton. 

From leading England to a fifth Six Nations Grand Slam - in his final game in charge back in April - to taking on a high-performance role within Japan’s women’s set-up and helping them achieve some of their first-ever victories, it hasn’t been a quiet 2023 for the 57-year-old.

Just over a year ago, Middleton had guided the Red Roses to another World Cup final but since leaving his post, he has spent six months in Japan, supporting the women’s side and working alongside head coach Lesley McKenzie.

Middleton admits the move to Asia all happened quite quickly after his last dance at Twickenham: “It was amazing, it was everything I hoped for,” he reflects when asked about his time in Japan.

“It was incredibly intense and hard work because it was so compressed. I probably picked it up earlier than I would of wanted to after finishing with England and the opportunity came so quickly.

“It was definitely along the lines of what I wanted to do with World Rugby in a consultancy capacity and the job ended up being a little bit of everything, the high-performance consultancy and I also did a fair bit of coaching which I didn't mind. I really enjoyed it.”

When Middleton was away in Japan, he tried to embrace everything from the food to the language. He goes on to explain it was very different coaching in a new environment, but it was an experience he'll never forget.

“I arrived in Tokyo and the temperature and humidity was something I've not ever experienced before. When we moved up into the mountains, it was class. We did a lot of our training in the Japan National Centre. It was a really good facility which had great pitches. They really looked after us. 

“In terms of seeing the country itself, I was very lucky. It is a beautiful country, busy in Tokyo but driving up to the mountains in Kuju was incredible.

“I made a really conscious effort to try and embrace the food! It's fairly simple, a lot of rice and a lot of fish. There's a lot of quirky foods!

“Similarly with the culture, they're [the Japanese players] so quiet. One of the things you get asked is what is the difference between coaching men and women and I say the girls ask a lot more questions. Not this lot! If you tell them what to do, they just get on with it. It was so peaceful!

“Their culture is incredibly respectful, they're respectful of each other. There's a real hierarchy thing where young people respect their elders and they demonstrate that continually.”

On the pitch, Middleton was amazed at the talent within the squad considering the small pool of players the country has at its disposal.

In Japan, XV’s rugby is not a game that is played often. Sevens is the game they play, yet their set-piece and kicking game, according to Middleton, is incredibly strong.

“Hardly any fifteens is played, they all play sevens,” he continues. “Very few players play more than two or three club games a year, even the front-rowers. There's a rugby culture that needs changing if they want to be really successful at XVs. They’ve got a really small pool of players. 

“They're also physically a small side too so technically, they have to be good which they are. They've got a decent scrum and strong set-piece.

“So I was blown away by the fact that they'd played more international games than club games! We had so many players on 102 caps! The improvement is huge because there are so many areas that are so underdeveloped in terms of exposing the players to play.

“When you look at how well the team played, they won seven out of their last nine games [including vs Samoa in WXV 2 as well as against Italy, Spain and Fiji].

“It blew my mind just how good the players in the team were considering how little they'd played. They've got some really quality players and they have some good decision makers. They have a great kicking game

“It’s not natural for the women's game, the ability for a lot of players in your side to be able to kick. I'd say Japan are probably more competent kickers of the ball across their whole back line than any international side I've worked with. The nines can kick better than the English 10s. They’ve got a really good attacking kicking game and that's one of the things that they identified as their superstrength.”

All of these plus points combined led to Middleton being pleased with Japan’s performances during his spell around the side: “We won the WXV qualifier which were the Asian Championships Tier 2 [beating Kazakhstan 72-0 in the final] and we played two Tests in Madrid. 

“Then we went to Japan for three weeks playing two Tests [v Fiji] which was amazing. We moved the full breadth of the country.

“We went to a place up in the mountains called Kuju. The training camp was so picturesque. We were sleeping on the floor with the most basic facilities. We then went from Kuju to Kizawa. We then went to Tokyo for the last bit so we really moved up and down the country.

“We played Fiji in two Tests and we beat Spain for the first time which was great! We then played Italy [in Italy] and beat them for the first time. It was six months of non-stop rugby. There were so many great experiences.”

Japan were, of course, involved in the very first edition of the recent WXV. They were in the second tier of the inaugural competition along with eventual ‘group’ winners Scotland while Middleton’s former side England - as well as Ireland - went unbeaten in their respective levels.

“I think the WXV is a great concept,” adds Middleton. “It gets players playing and noted. You can see from the crowds, there were very few people that came and watched, unfortunately. Maybe that's because the men's World Cup was happening at the same time but also nations just starting out. I think the whole concept is fantastic, though.”

And whilst Middleton was focused on Japan’s progression during their WXV fixtures over in South Africa, he also kept an eye on England who went on to lift the WXV 1 title against world champions New Zealand in Auckland.

After helping the Red Roses to numerous Six Nations titles, as well as two World Cup finals and steering them to a 30-match unbeaten run, Middleton pauses for thought and reflects on his eight years in charge of the country.

“I look back on England with a great sense of pride. I was hugely fortunate to be able to do the job for so long. It was a great privilege for me. 

“We changed the game massively and so many positive things came out of it - our development of the game and the professional side of it, from an on and off-field perspective. 

“The big disappointment was that I didn't deliver a World Cup as a head coach as we had everything we needed to win one. That's sport though. It's all part and parcel.

“I still watch the games avidly. I've been really interested in seeing how they play. It's great that England are trying to build a different game. In the first couple of games against Canada [pre-WXV], you could see the tempo they were trying to play at which was good to see. I've really enjoyed watching them so far.”

With the announcement this week that Sunderland’s Stadium of Light has been selected as the opening venue for the 2025 World Cup, all roads for the Red Roses will now lead towards the North-East with the final at Twickenham the ultimate target.

For Middleton, whether he will find himself in another coaching role over the next year or so, we will have to wait and see but he has recently set up his own business in high-performance consultancy as well as being in the process of writing his own book so he can help other like-minded individuals achieve their dreams.