England may have set themselves back by leaving Simon Middleton as coach
While keeping Simon Middleton in charge for this Women’s Six Nations gives England some sort of consistency at a time when there is a lot of transition within the squad in terms of personnel - Sarah Hunter stepping down, the number of injuries - in an ideal world you would have wanted the new England head coach to have started their tenure straight after the last Rugby World Cup, before kicking on over the course of the cycle towards the next tournament.
Simon will certainly bring that degree of continuity. But, given he is departing after the tournament, ideally the new head coach would already be in place implementing their systems and using the Six Nations to get the players on board. France and Italy now have new head coaches, for example.
It is incredibly important for the Rugby Football Union to have the next head coach lined up and in place, because every day counts. Three years between World Cups is not long. As we have seen with Steve Borthwick and Warren Gatland in the men’s Six Nations, a coach needs time.
Among my options to succeed Middleton would be Jo Yapp, the former England captain now with Worcester who has a great coaching pedigree. Amy Turner, the Harlequins Women’s head coach, is a really exciting prospect but this role comes too early in her coaching development. Susie Appleby would be another, the Exeter Women’s head coach. Also Alex Austerberry, who is director of rugby at Saracens Women and Giselle Mather, who is now at Ealing, although she has just started there. Internally you would have to consider Louis Deacon as well. But who knows, there could be a candidate who we haven’t thought about as much. There are lots of options.
What is really hard, and perhaps people do not appreciate, is that once that final whistle goes and you head back to your hotel room after celebrating or commiserating, the new Rugby World Cup cycle begins at that moment. You are in such a weird limbo. You know a handful of players are going to retire, some will stay, and the coaching set-up is likely to change. Essentially, you know things are never going to be the same.
For the head coach that is a tricky balance. Thinking back to my own experience, when we lost the World Cup final in 2006 I had ‘tour blues’. It was sad to finish the campaign without the result you wanted, but you also knew some of the team would not be there moving forward, you would have to start again. Some people are energised by that, thinking they have another four years - or three years in the case of the current squad - to come back and prove their worth. And then another handful of people think that it is their time to bow out.
Dealing with that turnover, with the people coming in who are new and excited by the World Cup mixed together with those who have been to one and know the work that is going to be required, is hard. Head coaches want to win every game they play, but there has to be one eye on the long game too of how to win the World Cup. And it takes time to build that team through a transition. If I think about the England team I was part of, it took 12 years to win the World Cup.
Losing your leaders might be the hardest part of all. Sarah Hunter will play this weekend in her final game, but after that you are losing 140 caps-worth of experience. In 2006 a lot of senior players decided to retire and we were left with a young side. We had to be accountable for the decisions we made - who would be the defining leader and the support group around them. That was quite hard and I think it was a big part of why we lost in 2010, because we didn’t have enough senior leaders to make appropriate decisions and to be confident backing ourselves. That is really the biggest transition.
It’s not necessarily about bringing players through, it’s developing leaders. That was the big focus before 2014, making sure we had theoretically at least six other captains in that team who could step up. Talent coming through was never going to be an issue, it was turning the players we had into people who could lead the team. You would like to think that is in place now, with Marlie Packer being co-captain and other players such as Emily Scarratt, Zoe Aldcroft and Poppy Cleall having also served as England captain when Hunter has not been available.
The number of injuries and players missing is no secret - Emily Scarratt, Zoe Harrison, Alex Matthews, Helena Rowland, Ellie Kildunne, Hannah Botterman, Laura Keates, Leanne Infante, Rosie Galligan, Vicky Fleetwood and Maud Muir, Vickii Cornborough (personal reasons), Abbie Ward (pregnancy) - but the thing that makes England stand out from the other nations is their depth. It runs deep. They have under-18 and under-20 programmes, along with a strong domestic club competition in the Premier 15s, which they can also tap into.
Their next options are strong enough to start in other teams, which is why England are still the Six Nations favourites. Although now the other teams have professional contracts which enable them to be fully supported and work towards closing the gap that was growing, I am expecting a much more competitive and open tournament.