It is no exaggeration to say that the French press are smitten with Zach Mercer. Not since ‘King Jonny’ reigned supreme with Toulon in the Top 14 nearly a decade ago has an Englishman made such an impression across the Channel.
Elected Man of the Match last month for his role in helping Montpellier win their first Top 14 title, the 25-year-old former Bath No8 is the hot favourite to win the league’s Player of the Season award when it is announced later this year.
It must have been some feeling being Mercer the morning after Montpellier crushed Castres 29-10 to win the bouclier de Brennus. Midi Libre, Montpellier’s local paper, called him ‘the English Magician’, the national dailyLe Figaro went for ‘the Titan’ and L’Equipe described his performance as ‘unstoppable’. Rugbyrama, the online version of Midi Olympique, said Mercer had reached rugby ‘Nirvana’ and remarked that England ‘can no longer ignore him’.
It would be nice to think so, given the manner in which the Red Rose has wilted in the last year or so, but with the rule precluding Englishmen playing overseas from selection Mercer is destined to remain in the cold until this time next year at the earliest, when his two-year-contract with Montpellier expires.
Even then there is no guarantee he will sign for an English club and become eligible for England selection in time for the 2023 RWC. In comments to a French reporter shortly after the Top 14 final, Mercer intimated he will activate the clause in his contract that will keep him at Montpellier for a third season. ‘I am here in Montpellier to stay, I will be here next season,’ he said, contradicting a claim in The Rugby Paper in May that he was in talks with Gloucester. ‘And I will fight to stay the following season. It will happen what will happen with the national team. I enjoy the moment….Of course I would like to play in the World Cup. If the opportunity arises, it would be great. But I know I can’t play for England if I’m in France.’
What makes Mercer’s rise to rugby stardom in France all the more compelling is that when he arrived in the summer of 2021 few people had heard of him. By Montpellier’s standards he was an insignificant signing, certainly in terms of caps won compared to the likes of Bismarck du Plessis, François Steyn and Aaron Cruden, all of whom had joined the Mediterranean club in the previous decade.
Midi Libre recently admitted it was one of those who scratched its head and said ‘Zach who?’ on hearing he had signed for Montpellier. ‘Today, he symbolizes a targeted, thoughtful recruitment, more modest but infinitely more efficient than the era of the star system and mercenary teams that, for a long time, identified a sad Montpellier,’ commented the newspaper after the Top 14 triumph.
He’s positive, like all Anglo-Saxons, they’re always in the mood. They have a different mentality from us, the French, who are grumpy, grumbling and like to be very negative.
Olivier Azam, Montpellier forwards coach
That is the scale of the influence Mercer has had on Montpellier; more than any other player he has transformed them from losers (they had been defeated in their two previous Top 14 finals) to winners. He’s achieved this considerable feat not just by his playing ability but his attitude, invigorating a club that had a reputation for introspection and disunity. ‘He’s positive, like all Anglo-Saxons, they’re always in the mood,’ said Olivier Azam, Montpellier’s forwards’ coach, of Mercer recently. ‘They have a different mentality from us, the French, who are grumpy, grumbling and like to be very negative.’
The success of Mercer at Montpellier is in stark contrast to the failure of one of his former England U20 teammates in France. In the summer of 2020 Gabriel Ibitoye left Harlequins for Agen and, unlike Mercer, he arrived to much excitement. Agen had been chasing his signature ever since he had run Clermont ragged in the 2019-20 Champions Cup. For the first weeks Ibitoye lived up to his billing, scoring a brace of tries in his Top 14 debut against Castres. The French press salivated. L’Equipe ran a “Five Things to Know” piece about the ‘future star of world rugby’ and Midi Olympique described Ibitoye as a “human bomb”. There were comparisons drawn with Rupeni Caucaunibuca, a former star of Agen, and even the late Jonah Lomu. I interviewed Ibitoye for Rugby Pass in September 2020 and he raved about how he was enjoying life in France.
Four months later Ibitoye quit Agen. He had a brief spell at Montpellier but that didn’t work out and he ended up playing for Tel Aviv Heat last season. Where did it go so wrong?
Many of the factors that make or break a foreign player in France are outside their control. Ibitoye succumbed to a series of injuries that kept him out of action, making it more of a challenge to be accepted by the fans and the squad. It’s hard to cultivate camaraderie from the treatment table.
In the meantime it became apparent that he had joined an ailing club as Agen were hammered in one game after another, ultimately becoming the first Top 14 club in the professional era to lose every league game in a season. Morale plummeted, in-fighting increased – literally – with players brawling with one another in an airport departure lounge.
During all this time Ibitoye was alone. There was no wife or girlfriend to offer moral support, and the Covid travel restrictions prevented visits from family and friends back home. It was a situation that would have tested the mettle of any 22-year old.
I told Philippe that Zach would kill it in the Top 14. Zach is a footie player, he’s got the soft touches of a rugby league player, as we saw in the Top 14 final.
Steve Walsh, renowned S&C coach
What it underlines, however, is the importance of choosing a French club with care. For every Zach Mercer, Jonny Wilkinson, Nick Abendanon and Trevor Brennan, there is an Ibitoye, Rhys Webb or Jonny Sexton, players who have failed to adapt to the rugby and the culture. Obviously the player’s character is of primary importance but it is advisable that any foreigner tempted by signing for a French club should do a thorough background check on the club, the coaching staff, the owner and the town. Montpellier, for example, is a young and energetic seaside city with a large student population among its 300,000 inhabitants; Agen has its own charm but is less sophisticated and populous with only 32,000 residents.
In a recent interview with Midi Olympique, Montpellier Director of Rugby Philippe Saint–André revealed that the man Montpellier have to thank for giving them Mercer is Steve Walsh, one of the most experienced and highly-regarded strength and conditioning coaches in the UK. Walsh worked with Saint–André at Toulon more than a decade ago, performing near miracles in rejuvenating the careers of Jonny Wilkinson and Bakkies Botha, both of whom had picked up reputations as injury prone. Walsh would have joined Saint–André at Montpellier in 2020 had it not been for Covid, but he helped his old mate by recommending he make Mercer a priority signing. ‘I told Philippe that Zach would kill it in the Top 14,’ explains Walsh, who coached Mercer’s father, Gary, during his illustrious rugby league career. ‘Zach is a footie player, he’s got the soft touches of a rugby league player, as we saw in the Top 14 final, when he put through that little kick that led to a try. He’s a very good back in a back-row’s body, someone who always wants the ball in his hands.’
With his knowledge of the Top 14 (Walsh also had a spell at Stade Français), Walsh recognised that Mercer’s game was made for France. ‘He fits in so well because the Top 14 is slightly slower [than the English Premiership] and also less structured and that suits Zach’s game. The skill level among the forwards a little lower and so with his natural ability, and the speed with which he reads the game, Zach can really shine.’
Walsh believes Mercer should stay in France for seasons to come rather than return to the Premiership where the style of rugby doesn’t play to his strengths; he also states that Montpellier haven’t yet seen the best of the Englishman. ‘Zach can reach another level, if he gets himself fitter,’ says Walsh. ‘His dad was a better trainer than he is. He was one of the best I’ve seen in the gym, and he had an exceptional mental toughness. Zach’s biggest flaw is that he’s not as fit as he could be.’
France loves him, and he loves France. As Mercer declared after the Top 14 triumph: ‘How can you not love this rugby when you see the atmosphere in the stadiums?’
For that reason, Walsh is relieved that Mercer avoided injury in his first season at Montpellier as in his experience the players who like gym work least are the ones who struggle most to come back from injury. Mercer played 32 matches last season, starting 24 of them, evidence that his fitness can’t be too bad.
He’s also psychologically fit for France, in other words Mercer has the mental dexterity to adapt and embrace the differences in rugby and culture with ease. Many overseas players who trod the same path as Mercer were incapable of accepting that the French do things differently to the Anglophones.
The former England and Newcastle centre Jamie Noon once told me that when he arrived at Brive in 2009 (for what turned out to be a successful four year stint) he adopted a ‘blank canvas’ approach; it was a fresh rugby start and he would henceforth do things the French way even if they conflicted with the methods he had learned in the UK. It’s that broad-mindedness that is key to whether a foreigner makes a good fist of it in France.
So far Mercer is doing just that. France loves him, and he loves France. As he declared after the Top 14 triumph: ‘How can you not love this rugby when you see the atmosphere in the stadiums?’