Alex Coles believes Northampton Saints are ready for the challenge of Bristol Bears ahead of their visit to cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday (kick-off: 3pm).
Pat Lam’s Bears pulled off one of the most impressive results of Round 1 of the Gallagher Premiership 2023/24 season, as they built a 25-point lead over Leicester Tigers before the visitors to Ashton Gate gained some consolation with a couple of converted second-half scores.
The men in Black, Green and Gold have already faced the Bears in the Premiership Rugby Cup in September, when Gabriel Ibitoye – who scored two tries against Tigers – claimed a stoppage time try to secure a 39-38 victory.
“They’re dangerous going forward,” said Coles. “They’ve got a lot of attacking talent, a lot of very skilful individuals. We’re aware of the threat they possess, in that sense, they’re slightly different to Sale. They’re strong up front as well.
“We’ve got a good sense of what they are about and I think they’ll be a good challenge, but we’re ready.”
Coles started Saints’ first league game of the season at Sale Sharks as Phil Dowson’s fell just short of an opening round victory, eventually heading home with the consolation of a losing bonus point after a 20-15 defeat.
Saturday’s visit of Bristol – who suffered a 45-31 defeat the last time they visited the Gardens in October 2022 – is Saints’ first home Premiership match in more than six months.
Coles, now aged 24, first played a league game at the venue nearly five years ago and relishes the opportunity of playing in front of a home crowd.
“We love playing at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens,” he said. “We want to win here to get us rolling and make sure this place is hard to come to again this year and make sure we give our supporters something to cheer for. They turn up for us week in, week out.
“Having visited all the other grounds, it makes me so grateful and thankful to play here. The pitch is beautiful and lovely to play on. In terms of support, it’s loud and busy.
“There’s a buzz around the town. You really feel that the place is invested in you and invested in the team.”Alex Coles
“And as a team, we’re invested in the area as well. It’s one of those intangible things that I maybe didn’t understand before coming into rugby or professional sport, that those things matter, but they do and I think from our home record it shows you how important it is and how much we enjoy it.”
After the Bristol game, attentions will turn to England’s Rugby World Cup semi-final with South Africa.
Coles was in the England team the last time they took on the Springboks as he packed down at blindside flanker at Twickenham in November 2022. The 27-13 home defeat proved to be the final match of Eddie Jones’ tenure as England head coach.
“That was a really tough match,” Coles recalled, “It was the last game of that Autumn Series, that was all new for me. It was a bit of a whirlwind coming in and going straight in.
“As a team, the results hadn’t gone the right way. There was a massive emphasis on trying to finish the right way against South Africa, how we knew were a strong side.
“I remember in the game we just couldn’t ever get a foothold. They had the foot on our throats in that sense. Especially around the set-piece, they pride themselves a lot on that. They just managed to control the game from there. They kicked really well and put the back three under a lot of pressure.”
Packing down against him that afternoon was Springboks skipper, Siya Kolisi. The iconic flanker’s shirt was one that Coles coveted – but he received something else far more intriguing from the captain who lifted the Rugby World Cup in 2019.
“I asked to swap shirts with him, but he’d already agreed to swap with Marcus [Smith] because they had the same agency,” said Coles, “He did agree to do an interview with me for my university dissertation, so I got something out of him.
“It was a bit random but I thought, ‘now is the chance’. I did my dissertation on the Springboks and their effect on trying to unify the country. I did it on whether the 2019 victory had a similar effect to that famous 1995 one.
“I asked him for an interview there and he helped me out. I Instagrammed him after setting him up at the game, he helped me out with that!”Alex Coles
Focusing on Saturday’s shoot-out for a place in the final on Saturday 28 October, Coles added: “I don’t think there’s too many surprises when you play South Africa in terms of what they’re going to bring. They’re really clear in their mind about what their strengths are and how they play the game. I don't think it’ll differ too much from that.
“I think people are going to maybe be a bit negative in terms of England’s chances, just from what I’ve seen in the way they’ve reacted to a performance, you can only beat who is in front of you and England have beaten everyone so far. I think that they’ve shown that they can win in a variety of ways.
“South Africa are probably the favourites for a reason, I think England have got a decent chance, it’ll all start up front against that Springbok pack.”