Simon Middleton was honoured to have been nominated for World Rugby Coach of the Year 2021, so to become the first coach of a women's team to win the award, he admits, feels “surreal”.
Middleton received the news during a phone call with Rugby Football Union (RFU) Director of Performance, Conor O’Shea and afterwards the England Women coach shared a heart-warming moment with his family.
“When Conor rang me with the news and he read the letter to me on the phone, my daughter was in the other room,” Middleton told World Rugby.
“Obviously, they knew I'd been nominated, and she came straight to the door because she could hear the conversation and she looked and was like, 'Have you got it?' I just put my thumb up and I could just see the tears well up in her eyes.
“Then I told my wife when she came in and she's not one for sentiment, but she was like, ‘Wow, that's unbelievable!’ and gave me a big hug, which was nice.
“And, then I told my son, who's 16. He's really into his sport and he just said: ‘I can’t believe that that’s incredible… I’m so proud of you’.
“When your kids tell you that they are proud of you, it means a lot.”
“I’ve got the right people around me”
The award is recognition for a fine year in which Middleton led the Red Roses to a fourth Women’s Six Nations title of his tenure and recorded back-to-back record victories against the world champion Black Ferns.
England ended their 2021 commitments on an 18-match winning run and assured of their place at the top of the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini.
Middleton, who has coached England since 2014, also received an MBE for services to rugby in the Queen’s birthday honours list in June, but the 55-year-old is keen to share his achievements with his family, colleagues and players.
“It’s nice to look back because quite a lot’s happened this year,” he said.
“I’m not a religious person, but I do believe things happen for a reason and so from a personal point of view, it's unbelievably satisfying. But from a team point of view and a squad point of view, and everybody I work with particularly now at England, it’s as much for them as it is for me.
“It reflects on them because in the head coach role in particular, you're nothing without your staff around you and the players and your job is to try and give them the opportunity to express themselves.
“You've got to trust them and believe in them and make sure you get the right people around you. And that's probably the most satisfying thing of the job is I've got the right people around me and we've built a really good squad.
“It's like the Player of the Year awards and things like that, they'll be the first to say, you're nothing without your team and, you're nothing without your work colleagues – and that's 100 per cent true for me.
“This is very much about all of us in England and very much about my family, and everybody who supports us, because there's no way you can do what you do without their support.
“So, I'm eternally grateful to all those people who supported me, and I certainly hope they share in it as much and enjoy as much as I have.”
RWC 2021 holy grail
Middleton says he is “immensely proud” to coach the Red Roses and acknowledges the team’s performances this year may earn them the tag of favourites on the road to Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022.
However, Middleton is aware of the need to keep feet on the ground. England beat the Black Ferns in Rotorua four years ago only to lose to them in the RWC 2017 final just two months later.
“You're always a work in progress. You have a picture in your mind of what you want to get to and what you want your team to look like and what you want to feel like when you watch them play,” he said.
“We're getting there towards that, we're definitely not the finished article and we don't want to be because we sort of thought we were there in 2017 before the last World Cup and in actual fact, we probably got finished a little bit too early and we left our best stuff behind us when we went to Ireland for the World Cup.”
Middleton added: “One of the biggest successes from the autumn has been the development of the leadership within the group, both on and off the field and the real ownership and the conscience that the team has about being the best it can be.
“Because when you get to that point, you can really start to step back a little bit and just watch it grow, watch the team grow.
“That's what it feels like at this moment in time and that makes you massively proud, because that's a difficult place to get to.”
Unsurprisingly, Middleton is relishing the prospect of leading England’s bid for a third women’s RWC title in New Zealand next year. “It’s the holy grail, isn't it?” he said.
“You don't hide away from that because you want that, you want everybody to know that you want to win it and that's your goal to win it. Because then you put yourself out there and then you go, ‘Right, well, let's see if we can actually do what we're telling everybody we want to do’.