Northampton lock Alex Coles says he's determined to hit the ground running in the new season after becoming the first forward to win Saints' preseason Blakiston Challenge, with his sights set firmly on claiming some silverware with his teammates this term.
The 21-year-old is the fourth Saint to claim the title in the Club's annual preseason competition; a gruelling event that incorporates both running and carrying weighted sandbags in shuttles, the challenge loosely mirrors the heroics of former Saint Sir Arthur 'Freddie' Blakiston, who was awarded the Military Cross in 1918 for risking his own life under heavy fire to save numerous others by carrying them on his own back.
And Coles became the first forward to win the Challenge that takes place at Castle Ashby in Blakiston's memory, following former winners Dan Biggar (2018), Reuben Bird-Tulloch (2019) and Piers Francis (2020) in blowing the commemorative horn.
"I was really chuffed with that," said Coles on claiming the title. "Several things went in my favour. None of the previous winners were there, so I had a good opportunity to win it.
"I came back in reasonable shape after the off-season because I couldn't go on holiday so it all worked out just right.
"I am the first forward to win it but it's only been going for four years so it's not that long-standing a record to break."
And with preseason training well underway at Franklin's Gardens, Coles and his teammates now have their attentions firmly focussed on the season ahead – with the lock hoping to turn his Blakiston Challenge success into a good run of matchday form in Black, Green and Gold.
"I feel like it's a massive year for me," Coles added. "For the last couple of seasons I've been in and around the matchday 23 quite a lot, but mainly from the bench.
"I just want to be in a position where the coaches feel they can start me more regularly. I had a chance to start the Ulster game in Europe and I felt that was one of the biggest games of my season.
"I feel like this is another big year for me to really stake my claim and make sure I'm a more regular starter."Alex Coles
"This is my first proper pre-season since my first year. I've had no interruptions with age group stuff or injury or anything like that. I feel like I'm in good shape and I'm improving so hopefully I can take that into the new season."
Despite his young age, Coles already has 41 Northampton appearances to his name, and now the young lock is hoping to prove to Saints' coaches that he's older than his years on the pitch.
"You get to the stage where almost that young player tag seems to give people the idea you're not quite there yet and you want to lose that label and be seen as a first-team player.
"You don't want to be seen as that up-and-coming player, you want to be seen as someone who is there and who can do it week in, week out. That's something I'm hoping to try to prove this season."
But a place in Saints' starting line-up isn't the only thing on Coles' mind as the new season approaches, with adding some more silverware to the trophy cabinet at Franklin's Gardens also top of his to-do list.
"It's what all these hours of pre-season are all about: trying to win that trophy.
"Harlequins showed that you can win the Premiership without having a home semi-final and with playing less traditional rugby, a more exciting version so it just goes to show you've got to time your surge right.
"For the past couple of years, we've not timed it so that we peak at the end of the season, which is when it counts.
"Obviously you want to do well all year round but we've had a couple of years of patches of good form and then dropping off so we're just desperate to try to get something tangible in our hands."