Zach Mercer interview: I'm coming back home to fight for a World Cup place

Player of the Match, Zach Mercer of Montpellier waves to the crowd after their victory during the Heineken Champions Cup match between Montpellier Herault Rugby and Harlequins at GGL Stadium on April 10, 2022 in Montpellier, France - Getty Images Europe
Player of the Match, Zach Mercer of Montpellier waves to the crowd after their victory during the Heineken Champions Cup match between Montpellier Herault Rugby and Harlequins at GGL Stadium on April 10, 2022 in Montpellier, France - Getty Images Europe

In terms of the English taking France by storm, Zach Mercer is third only to Henry V and Horatio Nelson on the list of famous conquests. The Montpellier No 8's Channel voyage has been one of the most profitable in English rugby history. Mercer, a player who brimmed with talent and potential even when left out of the starting XV at Bath, has reinvented himself so emphatically in Occitanie that he barely resembles the No 8 for which English rugby had such high hopes when he left these shores in July 2021.

The 25-year-old was named player of the match as Montpellier won the Top 14 final last season and, on Monday night in Paris, Mercer beat Antoine Dupont and Grégory Alldritt – the French duo widely regarded as two of the world's best – to the prize of Top 14 player of the season for 2021-22. With a move to Gloucester secured for next season, however, Mercer's sights have turned firmly to those of international rugby; of Eddie, England, and St George.

'I have a burning ambition to run out at Twickenham'

"A surreal year. Whatever happened at Bath happened, but I know I made the right decision [in moving]," Mercer says. "Winning the [Top 14] Brennus last year [was great] but actually the first game for Montpellier, down in Toulon, I knew then that the right decision was made. And look where I am now a year later.

"It was nice just to be able to rub shoulders with [Antoine] Dupont and [Grégory] Alldritt, arguably the two best players in the world right now, so to be in there with them is pretty special.

"I have a burning ambition to run out at Twickenham – but I'm also at a stage where I need to take my wife home and settle down and enjoy being in England – and enjoy the new challenge ahead of me. But she has loved it down in the south of France and it's pretty surreal for me. It was a tough decision to leave."

That decision was made tough by the Montpelliérain lifestyle, which Mercer and his recent bride, Emily, will depart with reluctance; oyster farms, being taught crude French phrases by team-mate Mohamed Haouas, and glamorous Provencal meetings with Eddie Jones, the England head coach, will be few and far between in the West Country.

Zach Mercer of Montpellier during the Heineken Champions Cup Quarter Final match between Stade Rochelais and Montpellier Herault Rugby at Stade Marcel-Deflandre on May 7, 2022 in La Rochelle, France - Getty Images Europe
Zach Mercer of Montpellier during the Heineken Champions Cup Quarter Final match between Stade Rochelais and Montpellier Herault Rugby at Stade Marcel-Deflandre on May 7, 2022 in La Rochelle, France - Getty Images Europe

"I went down and met him in Aix-en-Provence before the Champions Cup final – not a bad spot!" Mercer says. "He came to a game. And there's been a bit of contact here and then. He knows where I stand and he knows where I'll be from July 1 so whatever happens, happens. I'm going back ultimately to settle down with the family and enjoy being home. If that World Cup call-up comes, then it's in France... so I do think I've got a bit more knowledge of the French.

"I gave Eddie the heads-up before I signed [for Gloucester] that I would be coming back to fight for a place in the World Cup squad. He was pleased with that. Whatever happens now, the ball’s in his court. He rings me and he drops me messages."

"The weather’s an easy answer [to what I'll miss the most]," Mercer adds. "The south of France is sun, sun, sun. I’ll miss the playing group. The bond the foreign group has with our wives is a pretty special family. You’re ultimately thrown together and you’ve got to bond, you’ve got to get on or it’ll be a pretty lonely life. I’ve got friends for life in Montpellier and I’ll be flying back when I have time off.

"We went to a mussel and oyster farm the other day. It was maybe a little bit sketchy to risk getting food poisoning two days before a game! Stuff like that’s cool. We’ve been on boats, although I get sea sick."

'Gloucester are on the up'

While Mercer is readying himself for a tussle with Alex Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds – who will, coincidentally, replace Mercer at Montpellier from next season – and Billy Vunipola for a spot in Jones' squad for France 2023, his Gloucester days will not begin until the end of this season, meaning that the 2023 Six Nations will almost definitely fall too soon for his reintroduction. International ambitions have not detracted from his personal focus, however, and, specifically, diving head first into the most physical league in the world.

"I haven't spoken much about Gloucester because I want to focus on Montpellier but it's a club that's on the up and I believe in George Skivington [head coach]," Mercer says. "I think he's a top bloke and I'm very excited for next year.

"It was definitely a gamble to come to Montpellier. I was massively out of my comfort zone. But it was time to go at Bath. I was just sitting around waiting for Eddie and it was not coming. My first cap in 2018 probably came too early for me. But I wanted to experience the Top 14. It was a gamble because Montpellier were bottom of the league but I went there and then we ended up winning the league – which is a credit to Philippe [Saint-André] and the coaches who have turned the place around.

"The physicality in this league is second to none, I’ve never experienced anything like it. No matter whether you’re at Perpignan, Brive or Toulouse away, every game is a fight. That’s what I love about it.

"My ability was always questioned, but I have loved proving them wrong."

He could not have done more.