By Milly McEvoy
Simon Middleton believes that his departure from the Red Roses is not the end of their meteoric rise, in fact, it is just the beginning.
The England head coach bowed out with one final victory as the Red Roses claimed a fifth Grand Slam under his tenure following a 38-33 win over France at Twickenham.
Middleton waved goodbye in front of 58,498 fans alongside departing backs coach Scott Bemand, with recently retired captain Sarah Hunter delivering the TikTok Women's Six Nations trophy.
Some would say it is the end of an era, but Middleton says different.
"It's been a big Six Nations for change with Sarah stepping down and retiring and then obviously myself and Scott Bemand deciding to move on," the 57-year-old said.
"It was a brilliant day and we couldn't have wished for a better stage to go out on.
"But it's not the end of the road, it's just a little bit of the way along the road."
England did not have it their own way as they looked to give Middleton a fairytale send-off, battling against a fired-up France in the first 15 minutes.
Abby Dow's sprinting score settled England who embarked on a period of dominance that stretched right until the half-time whistle.
Marlie Packer and Alex Matthews crossed before the Red Roses were awarded a penalty try after Rose Bernadou became the second France player in the sin-bin, joining the retiring Jessy Trémoulière.
Zoe Aldcroft scored on the stroke of half-time to make it 33-0 but France came out for the second half with intent, scoring five tries of their own before the clock denied them a chance to go for an improbable victory.
England will reflect on that second half in good time, but that will not be their only motivation as they head into the autumn, with Middleton believing his successor will bring renewed vigour to the team.
He added: "You've got to keep putting new energy into the group, and you've got to keep putting new ideas in the group.
"It's been brilliant, the last 9/10 years, but it's definitely the right decision for everybody and you shouldn't be afraid of change and we're going see a lot of change.
"We've seen a lot of changes in this Six Nations and we'll see a lot more going forward.
"The key bit is to make sure that we keep the energy in and we feed off what's happened at Twickenham, because it's been such a special moment, it's been a privilege to be here."
— TikTok Women's Six Nations (@Womens6Nations) April 30, 2023
Middleton has been part of a period of rapid progress for the women's game, coaching the first professional side in women's rugby history when England were given full-time contracts in 2019.
But he is just as grateful for the game as it is for him.
"What everybody needs to understand is that the game has given me just as much as I've given the game," Middleton said.
"It gave me a great opportunity to coach England, and work with some fantastic players and develop myself as a coach and a person.
"We've had some great successes and we've had some failures, and that's sport.
"But when you look around the stadium at 58,500 people and the energy in the stadium, I couldn't be prouder and it's a good place to step out."
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