In the latest of edition of Big Jim’s Big Interviews, our man sits down to chat with Bath back-rower Zach Mercer on his time in Scotland, a rough start at Bath and his England ambitions just 12 months out from a Rugby World Cup.
Jim Hamilton: I wanted to interview you, mate, because you were tearing up trees at the weekend.
Zach Mercer: Yeah, it was a pretty good game from the boys and obviously Joe [Cokanasiga] was on fire.
JH: He was. We’ll come on to the game after, I just want to go back a few years and I remember watching you – you won’t remember me being there watching – but I actually remember watching you at school, when you were at Merchiston Castle, with your old man on the sidelines. To be fair, you were half decent back then, but when you were playing in school in Scotland, were there ambitions for you to play for Scotland? Or was it just kind of wait and see?
ZM: Growing up, yes. Obviously, I grew up in Scotland because of what my dad did, and I went to Merchiston. There were ambitions to stay in Scotland, too. I played for Scotland U16’s and U17’s and I did the U18’s a year early, but I didn’t get picked for that squad. Then the year after, my age group for the U18’s, I didn’t hear from Edinburgh or Glasgow [Warriors] regarding contracts and then Bath came calling. Danny Grewcock was on the phone and then he came up to Edinburgh to see me. So, when a Premiership club came calling, I thought I’d be silly not to take it. I was still hoping I’d play for Scotland that U18’s season, but the squad got announced and I wasn’t in it. I was a bit surprised. At that age-group I was playing reasonably well, and I thought I’d be in there, but Eddie Pollock came into the school and explained it was because I had signed for Bath, and that hit me as a bit of a surprise. I rang Peter Walton, who was England U18’s coach, and he said, “don’t worry, we’ll have you down here” and a couple of weeks later I was making my debut against Scotland.
JH: How was that? I’ve been on the other side of the fence, I played England age-groups, lot of lads said I wasn’t good enough to play for England so I choose Scotland, which I didn’t see as being the case, but was it weird? You would have played with a lot of the guys in Scotland who you were then playing against for England.
ZM: Yeah, it was weird, because I’d played the districts stuff since I was 16 and I’d captained most of the teams I was in, so I knew most of the boys. I remember texting someone on the day the Scotland U18’s squad was released and I was like “have you got an email?” and he said “yeah, I’m in” so I was there still waiting for this email and then Eddie rang me, which I mentioned earlier. Then my debut, it was weird going against the likes of Blair Kinghorn, who I’d been playing with, Saul Melvin-Farr, who was at Edinburgh academy, playing against these boys that I had been playing with for years. But now I’m with England and obviously my ambition is to push on and get that senior cap.
JH: Of course, mate. We spoke about your dad, obviously I know your dad as well, but what I didn’t know about your dad – I knew he had played rugby league for New Zealand and he was a tough bugger and you can see he’s done the rounds and put his head where it hurts – but is he Maori?
ZM: So, he’s about half or quarter Maori, so I’ve got either a quarter or an eighth in me, really.
JH: That’s all you need!
ZM: Yeah, I know. He used to play for a Maori rugby league team and he joked that he was the only white guy playing for the Maoris!
JH: And how was he? I know he was emotionally-invested in the Scottish Rugby Union, I don’t know if he left on good or bad terms, but what direction was he pointing you in?
ZM: Yeah, obviously he was quite high up. He worked with Glasgow and the U20’s, but unfortunately, he left on bad terms, just in regard to who was in charge there, and he had disagreements about me, too, which was an influence.
Scotland weren’t happy that I’d decided to sign for Bath and leave, but after that scenario he was like “right, bugger off, go play well down there, play for England and make them regret not offering you a contract earlier” and god knows where I’d be now if that had been the case. I’d probably still be up in Edinburgh or Glasgow, playing rugby for them.
JH: So, you’ve mentioned your dad’s influence there. I was at Saracens when your dad rocked down and brought you, when you were kind of looking around clubs. It was a Monday, it was meant to be touch but you were out there absolutely smoking boys. I think you smoked me, anyway! I was a pretty top dog there and you wanted to show off, that’s why. When you made the decision to come down, was it just a case of looking at a few different clubs or was Bath always in your sights? What was the thought process?
ZM: Basically, I put a couple cuts of me together and sent them out to all the academy managers around. I came down for a training session with Sarries, played an U18’s game and I loved the environment down there. I was influenced by Rory Teague and I wanted to push on to U20’s, so I got to know him really well. Then I went down to Bath and felt that the Bath culture and environment probably suited me a little bit better and the city itself was a massive factor in my decision. It’s not a bad place to play rugby and I was also looking at the competition around and seeing where I could fit in the best and it turned out to be Bath. I don’t regret that decision and I’ve just re-signed, so I’m loving my time down here.
JH: Let’s stick with Bath before we jump forward to England. You mention the competition for places. Really, 20 is pretty young to be playing in the back-row at the highest level or, without blowing smoke up your arse, the level you’ve been playing at, so were you surprised, or were the coaches surprised, at how well you adapted to it?
ZM: It wasn’t actually easy for me. The first year I didn’t really play any rugby. They didn’t want to send me out on loan and I was in the gym all the time, so I didn’t enjoy it. The second year, I was close to wanting to leave and go try out in New Zealand and have a couple of games out there, obviously being New Zealand-qualified, just to see what would happen.
I got convinced by Barry Maddocks, who was the academy manager at the time, to stay and give it a shot with the new coach [Todd Blackadder] coming in. I ended up going on loan to Hartpury for one game but unfortunately for Dave Denton and [Toby] Faletau, they got injured in the first Premiership game and I started a week later against Newcastle at home. I haven’t really looked back since.
Obviously, I’ve still got a lot more developing to do physically, as well as adapting my game, but I’m sure the coaches are pretty happy with how I’m progressing at the moment and I’m learning from the best players and coaches, so I can’t complain on that front and hopefully I just keep pushing on.
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JH: You mention about the development and you might not remember this guy, but James Forrester was one of the best back-row guys in the Premiership. You remind me of a more powerful version of him. You look bigger this season, how much bigger are you?
ZM: Last season I was playing at around 108 kilos and I felt good, but I just didn’t feel like I had that bang. This year I’ve got up to 111 kilos, just three extra kilos but I feel like I carry it well and my upper body is getting bigger. You can see in the collisions that I try to hit a bit harder and bring a bit of oomph to my game, effectively, and that’s something I’ve been developing. When people think of me, they just think of an attacking player, but I know also want to bring that defensive element into my game.
JH: In terms of Bath this season, there was a lot of talk before the first game against Bristol from Blackadder saying that you guys were in prime position, so let’s talk about the first two weeks, which didn’t go too well. Were you guys shocked with losing that first game?
ZM: Yeah, obviously we’d had a really good pre-season, our whole squad together with just one international coming in late in Cooper Vuna, so we really bonded as a group. Playing Bristol, in the first game of the season, at Ashton Gate, it was always going to be tough game for us, but I feel like we underestimated it. We didn’t expect the challenge that was going to come. Fair play to Bristol, they pretty much came out and kicked our arses for a lot of it.
We managed to get ourselves back into the game but unfortunately it was just too much at the end. It was disappointing because we wanted to kick off our season with a win, but I feel like it’s put us in a good place, realising that there are no easy games in this league this year and we have got to have the same mentality if we’re playing Worcester one week, as we would have against Saracens in another week. It’s about understanding as a team how we can progress, and we have to be consistent with that mentality.
JH: Moving on to the game this past weekend against Quins, I don’t think many people saw that coming. Quins have been saying they want the Stoop to be a fortress, so tell us a little about that game and how it’s galvanised you guys? I saw some of the videos from the way back and it looks like you had good craic, which is obviously important, but how big of a win was that for you boys?
ZM: It’s been a while since Bath beat Quins away, because Twickenham Stoop is a tough place to go, especially if it’s a Friday night game on a cold evening. For us, we knew we had to get our season on the road and we felt for the two weeks before that, we had let ourselves down, as well as the coaches and the Bath community, because we were capable of so much more than we showed in those games.
I feel like when we went out onto the pitch against Quins, our attack just clicked, our defence clicked and that’s the Bath we want to be known as, not the team that played against Bristol. For us, we needed that win and we needed five points and although we let them back into the game, I think the scoreline made it a look a bit better for Harlequins than it actually was.
I mean, our attacking mindset in that game was probably the best since I’ve been at Bath and like you said, it’s important to enjoy those times off the field once you’ve got the result and we need many more of them, rather than having a sad bus back. It certainly helps the environment when you get a win and I’m sure it’ll be a good one against Northampton on Saturday.
JH: It’s a tough league this season, but what’s Todd saying in terms of ambitions? Do you talk about top four? Is top six spoken about? How does he go about it?
ZM: Top six is a non-negotiable for us. We know we should be at that level and it’s about pushing for the top four now. You can’t afford to let points slip in this league, so Todd has made it pretty clear that we are a top four side and against Harlequins we showed that, especially as a forward pack I thought. We were driving and mauling them all over the park, scrummaging them all over the park, and that’s what we want to do. Credit to our forward pack, they’ve been outstanding at the scrums and lineouts.
For us, our ambitions are top four and top six is non-negotiable.
JH: So, on to England. Obviously, it’s a big year with the World Cup. Your rise in that environment has gone through the roof. You started out as an apprentice and then – I’m not sure how it all works – Eddie named you as a non-apprentice and part of the squad. What’s your ambition going forward to the World Cup?
I personally think there’s a huge void in that six-eight-bringing someone off the bench type of a role. Billy [Vunipola], of course, and Nathan Hughes, both of whom have struggled with injuries, as well as Sam Simmonds and [Tom] Curry is going to be in with a shout. Can you see yourself playing six, as well?
ZM: Being involved in that England environment is the best thing for me, just learning from them and understanding what it takes to play international rugby. I played against the BaaBaas, so I had a little glimpse of it there, but, like with Bath, I’ll play anywhere in that back-row. I mean, I’ve played six, seven and eight for Bath since I’ve been here. I’ll fit in wherever Eddie has plans for me, really.
This year I’ll probably predominately play six, with Toby Faletau playing eight, but I just want to show I can fulfil multiple roles and show how versatile I can be. Obviously, the World Cup is at the end of the season, but I’m just focused on Bath and getting in that team every week. Then Eddie will come and watch you and you never know what will happen after that. I don’t want to look too far ahead just yet.
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