England call out Alex Coles over debates with vicar parents and skipping political conferences for training
Alex Coles hugs a wooden pew at St James’s Church in Northampton. He’s a tight fit for his 6ft 8in frame but, as the son of two vicars, he’s in familiar surroundings.
“This is the church where the Northampton Saints started,” he explains. “There was a reverend here, Reverend Wigg, and he started the rugby club to get young people out of trouble. The team was originally called Northampton Saint James, after the church, and here we are now.
Rays of red and gold stream from the stained glass window to his forehead as Coles shares his journey through religion and rugby. “My parents used to take me to church every Sunday and I wasn’t so keen on it when I was young,” he says. “At that time they weren’t vicars…it happened when I got a little older.”
Called to England, Alex Cole is the son of two vicars and the church is a big part of his life
Coles is an undergraduate and he balances his studies with his rugby commitments
“Rugby training was also on Sunday mornings and when I was 10 I asked if they could take me to rugby training instead. They agreed, so I joined Newmarket Rugby Club and that was my way out of Sunday School!
“Church was a big part of my life. My parents always gave me the independence to make my own decisions, be it rugby or religion, and I wouldn’t change that. You go to high school, read stuff, and make up your own mind. I love the church’s sense of community and compassion. I’m not religious now, but it definitely instilled values in me that I try to uphold.
As an undergraduate majoring in politics, philosophy, and history at Birkbeck College, Coles isn’t shy about theological debate with his parents. He balances his studies with his rugby commitments, although his study hours have been reduced since his call to England for the autumn series.
“I’m supposed to go down to London two nights a week, but my attendance isn’t perfect,” he admits. “I always wanted to do something besides rugby. Dad is a doctor with a fairly academic background. Growing up, I never envisioned rugby becoming a profession. It was a fun thing to do and my idea was to go down the Oxbridge road. I don’t want to stop studying because I play rugby.
“Politics has always interested me. Obviously, it’s a complete mess right now. Things got pretty crazy with Liz Truss. Reducing taxes on the wealthiest in society today would still be suicide. The economic situation is also difficult in rugby at the moment, so there are certainly parallels there.
His study hours have been reduced since his call to England for the fall series
Coles has been a pillar of stability throughout a turbulent Premiership season. He is the only player to play every minute of every game, making more tackles than anyone else in the league. His form caught the eye of Eddie Jones, who called on the 23-year-old to challenge Courtney Lawes at both lock and flanker.
“Growing up, I was the tall, skinny boy, so I was always the line-up option. It wasn’t until recently that Chris Boyd started playing me in the back row. If I can emulate what Courts does, that would be great. He’s a phenomenal player. My first start for Northampton was alongside him in the second row, it was a pinch moment. He is a man of few words but who gives little advice when you do extras after training. We had a fun time in the gym the other day. Eddie put out a video saying I could pressure Courtney for jersey #6, so he added weights, smiled at me, and said, “You better do that now!”
“I’m happy to play anywhere. You’re a little more into the wide channels in the back row, but I’m happy to be in the thick of it in the engine room. If I’m playing second, I try to put in a bit more that week. At the moment I am 118 kg. When I play in the second line, I try to add one or two kilos.
Coles appeared for the England U18 and U20 sides before receiving his call up to Eddie Jones’ squad
“Coaches give me an idea on Monday and if I’m locked out it’s a few extra protein shakes, whole milk, snacks. In the back row you do a lot more kick-chase but, when you’re locked out, the props want some scrum weight so they give me some extra yoghurt for lunch.Back at the house where it all started in Cambridge, Coles’ parents are currently hosting a Ukrainian family.The striker’s height comes from his mother , although there is more sporting experience in his father, who played for the University of Oxford and London Welsh amateurs.
“My dad likes to think he’s decent,” he laughs. “He played for the London Welsh at the time. He played for the Oxford second team and says the only reason he didn’t play for those is because Zinzan Brooke was there. I’m not sure I believe it. If Coles takes over in the England series opener against Argentina next Sunday, his parents will face a mad rush after morning church service to kick off. However, when the conversation comes to next year’s World Cup, Coles doesn’t allow himself to think that far ahead.
“I’m happy to be where I am,” he says. “Playing for England has always been a huge goal for me, although it wasn’t really on my immediate mind at the start of the season. I spent a few years trying to get into the 23rd day at Saints, but my immediate goal was to get a starting spot.
“Obviously it was a huge honor to be called up, but I’m not going to get too far ahead. You see a lot of players come and go in rugby and it makes you realize how quickly things can change. Someone one could have a meteoric rise like Tommy Freeman but things can also fly the other way Obviously playing in the World Cup would be amazing but my focus for now is to play well for the Saints and to show what I can do in training with England.