Tough times stand Saints lock Coles in good stead ahead of new season
Back in March, Saints boss Chris Boyd was asked about the contribution of young lock Alex Coles, who was starting to become a staple feature at Franklin's Gardens.
"This year for Alex Coles was supposed to be a regeneration and development year," Boyd said. "He's done a good job at playing but he wasn't supposed to play this year.
"He was supposed to grow, get nice and big, nice and strong, nice and skillful and play a few Wanderers games and have a few first-team appearances, but he's endured an enormous workload."
Those quotes came after Saints' injury burden fell on the shoulders of lock Coles.
Just before the first lockdown began, the Cambridge-born player had started five successive league matches, with Saints losing four in a row before beating Worcester Warriors.
Though the club's form was far from good, Coles had stood out, and not just because of his lean and lofty physique.
He was mounting a realistic challenge to be involved far more often in the first team when the walking wounded returned.
And Coles was again in the matchday squad for the first game back when rugby returned in August, being named on the bench against Wasps.
But the 21-year-old was only able to enjoy a short cameo before an ankle injury struck, ruling him out for the rest of the season.
He is now back and raring to go though, with Saints starting their new campaign at Sale Sharks next Friday.
And Coles is hoping the tough times he has endured on and off the field during 2020 can stand him in good stead.
"I've just come back to fitness and I, like everyone else, am really excited to get going again," Coles said.
"It's been a while for me, not so long for other guys, but it certainly feels like a fresh start for everyone involved.
"It was really frustrating for me to get that injury because I felt like I set a really good benchmark and gave myself something to build upon pre-lockdown.
"I played a few games on the bounce due to injuries and suspension.
"Lockdown came, I felt like I put on a bit of weight, my strength was improved, I felt like my physical development had improved and I wanted to put that on the pitch.
"So to get five minutes into the first game back and get an injury, especially at a time with Covid, which meant there was going to be a lot of rotation and plenty of opportunities for me to grasp, was really frustrating.
"But it's the nature of rugby and you just have to accept it and move on.
"I've used it to try to continue some of the gym stuff I've been doing and I'm feeling really good.
"The surgery went really well and my ankle feels stable and strong so hopefully there won't be any more problems with that."
And those valuable experiences of early 2020?
"I was so happy to be playing but the results weren't going our way when I was so it was sort of a balance between loving playing rugby but the team not going so well so it was a bit of a struggle," Coles said.
"But that was a good experience and I was calling the lineout at the time.
"I had ups and downs and going through that tough period, which really put me under pressure, means it has accelerated my learning in lots of areas.
"It should have served me well going forward.
"It's about the intensity with which you do everything and the concentration that you bring to everything.
"There's no switching off. You can't be good for one carry and then coast for the next few minutes. You've got to be constantly alert, in defence in particular, because the attacks in this league will exploit it.
"It comes with the off-field stuff you do in the gym and it's all about being switched on and not relaxed when you're working or when you're training."
And Coles isn't short of second row role models at Saints.
Courtney Lawes is an established England international, Nick Isiekwe has also worn the rose and Alex Moon and David Ribbans have also been given a recent taste of life in camp.
"We've got a really good second row group here and we're all really happy when we see the other guys succeed," Coles said.
"Moony has been really good for the past two seasons and Dave's call-up has been coming for a while now.
"It makes me feel like it is within reach if I put in the work they do and I emulate some of the stuff they do.
"It is a possibility in years to come for me if I perform as I want to and I keep working hard."
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