EVEN the most serious southerner would consider it cruel to wipe the grin off Simon Middleton’s face.
The Yorkshireman, who made his name as a winger for league outfit Castleford Tigers in his playing days, has good reason to be beaming from ear to ear: the Red Roses head coach will accompany his 28-player squad to Doncaster next month, when England play their second Quilter Internationals fixture against Canada at Castle Park on November 18, which is part of a three-test series.
The 5,000-seater stadium will be a stone’s throw away – or a mere half hour car journey up the A1 – from Knottingley RUFC, where Middleton’s own journey in rugby union began as a youngster.
The 52-year-old still holds vivid memories of playing at Doncaster’s ground, albeit in a much more modest environment, which he recalls being “just fields and a hut”.
Upon his return, Middleton will eye England’s fixture as a baptism of fire for women’s rugby in the north of England, where the game enjoys its own melee with rugby league.
Middleton considers the union-league mixture as an alliance, rather than a hindrance; a philosophy shaped through the experience of his daughter, who plays union for Castleford RUFC, but proudly remains a staunch Castleford Tigers fan.
“Union is certainly growing in Yorkshire and I think this is a great opportunity to showcase what top class rugby union looks like,” said Middleton.
“Without a doubt, there’s some very good players in women’s rugby league.
“If what we do in Yorkshire and going forward, other counties, opens up players to what’s out there in terms of rugby union, then hopefully we’ll get more involved in the game.”
Geographically, though, England’s showdown with the USA – who will be looking to impress in their first game under former Saracens coach Rob Cain – will serve as an important reminder that if the women’s game is to cultivate, it must do so beyond the cramped cabbage patch of London.
Three of the four top teams in the Tyrrells Premier 15s are all based in the capital, while Harlequins and Saracens are already becoming synonymous with the face of women’s club rugby by faultlessly aligning themselves with their Gallagher Premiership male counterparts.
One player from the only Tyrrells side north of the midlands, Darlington-based side DMP Sharks captain Heather Kerr, is included in the Quilter Internationals squad, while half are from London sides – notably Saracens, Harlequins and Wasps.
While the Tyrrells league is in its nascent stage, is the women’s game already in danger of being unable to expand beyond the hub of London clubs?
It might seem that way on paper, but Middleton insists there’s already proof in the pudding for challenging such a belief.
“Loughborough is the best example of a Premier 15s side who are doing well. What they’ve done in terms of developing their premier side is fantastic,” he said.
“They’re a great example of what can be done outside of London.
“I think taking the game to Yorkshire is massive, in terms of hopefully not just for players and fans to watch, but people who can support the game externally to try and support sides like DMP.
“All the people who’ve wanted a game in Yorkshire have now got one – they’ve got to vote with their feet now.
“They’ve got to show how much they wanted it. The fans need to get behind it and put Yorkshire on the map as a venue for hosting international games.”
Those who turn out to fill Doncaster’s 5,000 seater stadium on November 9 will have a good chance of witnessing Katy Daley-Mclean earn her 100th cap, who is one of the older members of the squad alongside 33-year-old captain, Sarah Hunter.
Yet young blood will not be lacking in Middleton’s eventual starting line-up: there are seven uncapped players who will be gunning to pull on a white shirt.
Four of those, Lucy Attwood, Sarah Beckett, Ellie Mulhearn and Ellena Perry featured in England’s under-20 winning tour to Canada in August – a telling sign that even England’s development player pathway is reaping dividends for Middleton when tasked with player selection.
The young quartet could be among the first to earn professional player contracts for their country, which will come into force from January 1 next year.
But even with the likes of Vicky Fleetwood, Sarah McKenna and Lydia Thompson – who return to the 15s fold after time on the England Sevens circuit which turned professional in 2014 – Middleton insists the allure of professional contracts hasn’t tipped the competitive mood in the camp over the edge.
“The main focus of the players has been to get into the squad for the autumn internationals,” he said.
“They’re under no allusions. We’ve got 28 players in the squad. We’ve got fringe players who didn’t make the squad who’ve been playing week in, week out in the Tyrrells and players outside of that who are going to come into the reckoning.
“Players who’ve got the shirt know they will have to go out and do their best and so the competition is great.
“Hopefully it will be reflective of the performance in the next three games.”