Zach Mercer has played for his country. He has locked horns with some of the biggest and fiercest back rows in Europe. He has captained England to age-grade glory, made a century of appearances for his beloved Bath and graced storied grounds packed and frothing with hostile legions.
Only this summer, at just 23, he made the bold call to flit to France, embrace a new country, new league and new lifestyle, as one of a handful of Englishmen willing to tackle the Top 14.
Nothing, though, turned Mercer’s stomach quite like sitting opposite his future father-in-law in a Montpellier restaurant and wondering how best to seek the man’s blessing to propose to his daughter.
“We went for a meal the night before we got engaged and I was more nervous about asking her dad for his permission than asking Emily to marry me,” Mercer tells The XV.
“My fiancée and her mum went off to the toilet and I was like, ‘This is my time’. I asked him and he was over the moon. The girls came back to the table and he was like, ‘Nothing has been said’, he managed to hide it well.
“The next day, we went down to the beach, I had the ring in my pocket the whole time trying to work out when the right moment was. The right moment was not in the restaurant. Emily’s parents went into the sea, and that was it, I asked the question and she was over the moon and said yes. By the sea, south of France – nice setting. It was a special few days.”
I can sit in the Premiership and do well, but not get picked for England. I needed something to get my name back out there. I want to have people talking about Zach Mercer.
The commitment made on a gorgeous, sun-bathed beach was the jewel in an exhilarating summer. After six seasons at Bath, from fawn to fulcrum, Mercer needed a fresh stimulus. Eddie Jones, the England coach, seemed unmoved by his consistent excellence and Montpellier supremo Phillippe Saint-André picked up the phone and “made me feel wanted”.
Nearly three years on from his brace of caps, and with the England policy of picking only home-based players still in force, he is willing to shut the door on his Test goals in the hope that he can return one day and boot it off its hinges.
Though it is early yet, Mercer feels cautiously vindicated. On debut in the sizzling Stade Felix Mayol, he scored the 81st-minute try that snatched a draw against Toulon. Another man-of-the-match outing followed as Brive were filleted last weekend.
“I just wanted a new challenge, a new adventure,” says Mercer. “Don’t get me wrong, I was enjoying being at Bath, but when I got an opportunity like this, it kind of hit me: what do I want to do with my career? I can sit in the Premiership and do well, but not get picked for England. I needed something to get my name back out there again.
“I feel in my first two games I’ve shown what I’m going to offer. I’m going to mature a little, keep improving, but I’ve got man of the match twice so it has not gone too badly.
“I want to have people talking about Zach Mercer, because the past two years it has kind of gone stale. I don’t want to people to forget I’m still performing.”
This is neither a cry of insecurity nor a lust for approval. Mercer does not crave adulation, but you do sense a slight simmering frustration that garlands flung so liberally at his rival No 8s feet have not, for whatever reason, been tossed his way.
And you can see his point. Mercer demolished the Premiership last season, even in a Bath side who did not translate their significant pedigree to a play-off berth. He finished near the top of the charts for metres gained, defenders beaten and tackles made, spearheading the Bath charge with his explosive fare and bright blue scrum cap.
“Sam Simmonds is a world-class player who thoroughly deserved to be on the Lions tour,” says Mercer. “The last year, all I kept hearing was his name, Alex Dombrandt’s name, Ben Earl’s name. These guys are world-class players, but I feel like once I announced I was leaving, that was it for me.
“Obviously I don’t want people to talk about me all the time, but I don’t want them to forget I exist and I do have aspirations to play for my country again. I’m not giving up on that.
“I feel I’ve already started to make a name for myself with the fans here. It’s quite nice that people don’t know who you are, a fresh start, and we’ve done really well the first two games.”
The Top 14 will test Mercer as few leagues can. Before him lies a great, sprawling ironman of a season. Brutes lurk at every turn. Manic crowds with vast expectations will provide the backdrop.
I’ve always been questioned about my size and physicality and to be honest it’s starting to pee me off. It encourages you to prove these guys wrong. That’s another reason I’m here.
Mercer is hardly a meagre specimen at 6ft 3in and 17st 5lb, but a perceived lack of bulk has always dogged him. His game is about dynamism, industry and footballing acumen. Mix it with the goliaths of the Top 14, and there can be no more crowing about his frame.
“I’ve always been questioned about my size and physicality and to be honest it’s starting to pee me off,” he says. “When people speak about you like that, it’s a challenge, it encourages you to prove these guys wrong. And that’s another reason I’m here.
“If you watch the last two games, it shows I can cope with it. There are some absolute mutants out here and I enjoy that challenge of facing someone massive. It’s a massively physical league and you don’t appreciate that until you’re in it. We had Toulon away, with their crowd, lining up against Sergio Parisse – you could easily go back in your shell. You’ve got to embrace it.
“Every week you’re playing against an international back row. I’m surrounded in training by guys like (21st 3lb) Paul Willemse and (19st 9lb) Bastien Chalureau. That’s why I’m excited to see what I’m going to be like by the end of my time here.
“I want to come back to England a better player for the experience and more resilient as well. I’ve still got a lot to improve on. I love it.”
Mercer also sees in Montpellier an opportunity to improve his soft skills. He longs to be a senior player in an illustrious squad peppered with internationals, at the heart of driving the club forth.
“I want to be involved in leadership decisions. I feel like because I was at Bath for so long, they kind of overlooked me and put other players in positions in the leadership group.
“I captained England Under-20s and led them to a Grand Slam. I want to be a leader – not someone who speaks all the time but I believe I can make a difference within the team. When I come back to England, I’ll have that experience to offer.”
The rugby will harden him, for sure. But the whole business of life on a foreign soil will change Mercer too. How could it not? Montpellier have enrolled him in weekly French lessons. As he grapples with the language, challenges have been swift and stark. The life experience gained will be invaluable.
“The house we’re renting at the moment, we never viewed in person because of Covid-19,” he says. “We only saw it on FaceTime. The first time we saw Montpellier was the day we moved here. Bath is a beautiful place but this is completely different. It’s amazing.
“People think it’s purely rugby, but you’ve got to sort out cars, sort out rent, sort out bills, go food shopping. Stuff you take for granted at home is 10 times harder here. You get letters through the post all in French and you don’t know what they’re saying. The other day I had an electrician come round who couldn’t speak a word of English.
“As long as I’m making an effort to learn and understand, that’s the most important thing.”
I know in the Premiership I played some really good rugby, especially last year when I could have just thrown in the towel and said, ‘Nah, I’m done’. I came here to help Montpellier win trophies. Our team on paper are ridiculous.
It is easy to forget there are two people tackling this voyage of discovery, to focus purely on the player rather than the young woman by his side who abandoned familiarity and comfort to make the leap with him.
“The way Emily has handled it, I couldn’t be any prouder. She has been awesome. She’s my rock,” says Mercer.
“Having her out here makes your rugby performances so much better. She’s there for me and I’m there for her.
“If she didn’t enjoy it here, that’s when the problems would start. I’m really lucky she has enjoyed it and got a special group of friends already with some of the partners. She came to her first game on Saturday and loved it.”
This weekend, Montpellier and Mercer face the sternest examination of their fledgling season. Reigning Top 14 and European champions Toulouse rumble east with their bastion of greatness. They beat La Rochelle – vanquished in both finals last term – on the road in round one, then visited an almighty spanking upon Toulon at their Ernest-Wallon stronghold.
This is your bag when you swim with the sharks of the Top 14. And Mercer is determined to thrive.
“People have different opinions but most important is how you feel yourself,” he says. “I know I’m Zach Mercer and this is what I am. I know in the Premiership I played some really good rugby, especially last year when I could have just thrown in the towel and said, ‘Nah, I’m done’.
“I play for myself, my family, my fiancée, my club. That’s what I love about Montpellier – I came here to help the team win trophies. We have the capability to do that, massively. Our team on paper are ridiculous, especially with our internationals back.
It takes guts to move, as Mercer has, somewhere so joltingly different to home. It takes guts to effectively rule yourself out of the next World Cup through your choice of club. It takes guts to broaden horizons and force yourself miles beyond your comfort zone. And it takes guts, of course, to front up to the all-conquering, irrepressible double champions – just not quite as much guts as a beachfront proposal.
More stories from Jamie Lyall
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