National

Red Roses eye records and Six Nations title for Middleton’s grand finale

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After eight years, 85 Tests, 76 wins and 3,411 points scored, England’s head coach Simon Middleton takes charge of his final match on Saturday. It should be quite a finale, with a world-record crowd for a women’s game in excess of 53,000 expected at Twickenham as the Red Roses go head-to-head with France in a winner-takes-all Six Nations decider.

The record currently stands at 42,579, set at the World Cup final at Eden Park in November. The attendance is also sure to smash the current Women’s Six Nations record, set last weekend with 18,604 watching France v Wales at the Stade des Alpes in Grenoble.

To more than double the record shows the progress not only the tournament is making, but the entire sport. The Twickenham crowd figure will hopefully act as a springboard for more avenues of progress and it will be a boost to the hopes of the Rugby Football Union who want to sell out Twickenham for the World Cup final in 2025.

Middleton – for whom a 53,000 attendance must have seemed unimaginable when he took the job in 2015 – has said the number of tickets sold has exceeded expectation and England’s vice-captain Zoe Aldcroft told the Guardian: “It shows how much the game has come on, to have a standalone match at Twickenham. For them to think we would sell that amount of tickets, even though we have gone over the amount they thought they would sell, it’s just amazing.

“I think my heart is going to be absolutely pumping. It is the adrenaline it will bring and obviously most of the crowd will be behind England so I think that is something we really have to take confidence in and put on a good performance because that is what they are coming to see. We want to make it a good event so it can happen again and again in the future.”

The crowd will be treated to a tight match if recent history is anything to go by. England came out 13-7 winners the last time the teams met in October at the World Cup and the Red Roses defeated France 24-12 in last year’s Six Nations. England have generally had the upper hand of late, however – the last time France beat their old rivals was in the 2018 Women’s Six Nations, coming out 18-17 winners, and the loss was the last time England were defeated in the competition. The Red Roses have been on a 23-match Six Nations winning run since. England have also been handed a boost ahead of the match with their captain Marlie Packer, the prop Hannah Botterman and No 8 Poppy Cleall ruled fit.

And while England will be favourites to win their fifth successive Women’s Six Nations, France could upset the Twickenham party. England’s biggest weakness, arguably, is their handling. They have made 69 handling errors in the 2023 tournament so far and they were exploited against Wales. The Red Roses’ mistakes in the first half saw Wales score points first and they held England from scoring until the 26th minute.

France could exploit the same weakness this weekend and if effective, England may not be able to rely on a rolling maul or an Abby Dow wonder try with France’s defence impressive in the tournament thus far. Les Bleues have conceded 29 points with only England conceding fewer. France will also have extra motivation to get the trophy win with one of their stalwarts retiring – the fly-half Jessy Trémoulière starts at 10 for her last ever match. The 30-year-old has won two Six Nations titles, finished third in three World Cups and was named Women’s 15s player of the decade by World Rugby in 2020.

Poppy Cleall carries the ball during the England v France Women's Six Nations match.
England have been given a boost with the news that Poppy Cleall is fit to play against France. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

England’s attack coach, Scott Bemand, is also leaving his role after the tournament alongside Middleton, for whom victory would mean a sixth Women’s Six Nations title. Middleton was the assistant coach when England won the 2014 World Cup and took over from Gary Street as head coach the following year. While Middleton did not manage to get his hands on the World Cup as head coach, losing in the 2017 and 2022 finals to New Zealand, he has overseen huge changes to the women’s game during his tenure.

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In 2019, the Rugby Football Union introduced professional contracts for the first time which Middleton called a “massive opportunity” when they were awarded. Since professionalism was introduced to the team they have won every Six Nations, Middleton became the first women’s coach to be named World Rugby Coach of the Year and England set a new world record after going 30 games unbeaten.

Aldcroft spoke on the impact Middleton has had, not only on England but on the game more widely. “For us, for England, Midds has been absolutely huge,” the Gloucester-Hartpury player said. “The standards that he sets for the team and the drive that he gives us is unbelievable. It can only be from him how much we have achieved over the last few years. So he has been amazing for England rugby and women’s rugby in general.”

Middleton told BBC Sport this week: “There was always going to be an evolution process but hopefully I’ve been able to accelerate it. I’ve been clear on what I want for the squad and that is to try and get the very best support around them. Where the game is now is massively important to me and I’m very proud of the fact that we’re so in the public domain now, everyone wants to cover us and come and see us.”

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( With inputs from : www.theguardian.com )

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