Alex Coles seeks to cap a year to remember with victory with England at the 2019 World Rugby Under-20 Championships
As first years out of school go, it has been quite a memorable one for Alex Coles.
Around this time in 2018, the then 18-year-old was getting ready to sit his A Levels at The Perse School.
Fast forward 12 months, Coles has a roll call that most many years his senior would envy. And the target for the season is still to come.
Coles is in his first year in the senior academy at Northampton Saints, but he has not been limited to the Wanderers side.
In November, the 19-year-old earned a call-up to the Saints first team to face Wasps in the Premiership Rugby Cup.
The next landmark for the second row was a first try for the first team, which came in the European Challenge Cup game against Romanian side Timisoara Saracens in January.
“It was my first year with Saints out of school and quite a big change from having lessons every day to playing rugby full-time, but I’m really enjoying it,” he said.
“I’ve had some really good opportunities this year. I wasn’t expecting to have so much involvement with the first team at Saints, so it’s been really enjoyable.
“It’s been a huge surprise but part of it is down to good fortune for me in that some lads have had some unlucky injuries but also the coaches have shown faith in some of the younger boys.
“Credit to them and I think we’ve done well for it, and I know a lot of the other academy lads are similar to me in that we’re really glad we’ve been given that opportunity.”
On his debut, Coles said: “I was pretty shocked and fair to say pretty nervous, but we train with them every day and it was just another rugby game – that’s what the coaches said to me ‘focus on the things that you’re strong at and try to bring that to the first team’.
“I tried to get around the pitch, get involved, and it was pretty nerve-wracking but it was my favourite memory putting on the Saints shirt for the first time.”
As for his try, he added: “When I came on towards the end, Timisoara were starting to get a bit tired and some space opened up, so I was able to get myself a try.”
They were both significant milestones for Coles, who had played his junior rugby at Newmarket, Shelford and Cambridge.
But what was his primary aim of the campaign? Only selection for England for the 2019 World Rugby Under-20 Championships in Argentina.
Having played in the Under-20s Six Nations Championships, Coles has been named in the 29-strong squad.
“The under-20s was my goal for the year,” he said. “I had done under-16s, under-17s, under-18s so I wanted to do the under-20s and get to the world cup to play with people I’d been alongside for a few years.
“I was really pleased that I managed to work my way into the squad. The Saints stuff is a really nice surprise for me, but this was my main target for the year and to have accomplished it, I’m really pleased.”
On the Six Nations, where they finished third, Coles said: “We definitely didn’t achieve what we wanted to and as we grew we accepted and came to terms with that, and are now trying to focus on our first game of the world cup against Ireland.
“Some of those losses were needed in that we’ve learnt some hard lessons and we’re in a really good position going into the first game.”
England reached the final of the under-20s world cup last year, only to lose 33-25 to France, and there are a number of returning members of the squad.
Their experience is proving to be a big help to the newcomers, passing on their guidance on what it takes to succeed in knockout rugby and what they learned from last year.
“We’ve spoken about it and been given ideas what we should expect going into the tournament because a lot of us wouldn’t have been away as a team playing knockout rugby in the same way,” said Coles.
“Everyone is really excited and, personally, it’s been a target of mine for this year and I’m really pleased to have achieved it and now I just want to push on and help the team win the world cup.”
One of those returnees is Coles’ Saints team-mate and fellow Cambridge old boy Fraser Dingwall.
Their paths did not cross in schoolboy rugby as Dingwall is a year older, but they were familiar with each other from the circuit.
“I never played at Cambridge with Fraser but we were on the same circuit and then I played some Saints games with him,” said Coles. “Both being from Cambridge, it’s nice to be in the squad together and we’ve been playing a lot of rugby together recently for Northampton.
“It’s really nice to have a fellow Cambridge person in the squad.”