Mercer and Montpellier eager to prove their superiority over Harlequins again

Former England international has a point to prove against Premiership champions

Zach Mercer has a score to settle. Two, actually. One, a slow-burner bubbling in the background, comes in the shape of an England recall, having not played since his second Test in 2018.

More immediately, though, he and his Montpellier teammates are out to underline their supremacy over the reigning Premiership champions.

Last Sunday, Mercer scored two tries as Montpellier comfortably beat Harlequins 40-26 in the south of France. They held a 34-0 lead but still enjoy a 14-point advantage heading into Saturday's second leg despite a spirited fightback from the London club.

Even with the lopsided scoreline, much of the post-match chat in England has focused on the losers, praising them like an ancient Greek pundit writing about Leonidas’s defeated Spartans. Even though Montpellier won by a two-try margin, they have not received the credit they deserve.

That, at least, is the perception within the Montpellier camp.

“It’s been weird to be honest with you,” Mercer says, shifting from the upbeat tone he maintains for the rest of our conversation.

“Sure, ’Quins are the masters of the comeback, but we still won by 14 points. It’s been frustrating to see so many articles that suggest ’Quins are favourites now. We don’t mind the confidence but the way it’s come across hasn’t gone down too well over here.

“But that excites us as a French team. We’ve just beaten the English champions and we still get doubted. It’s a great opportunity for us. We’re underdogs? Great! Who doesn’t like being underdogs? We can walk proud into the second leg with our tails up. We’re top of the Top 14 and we’re in a great position in the [Champions] Cup. They can doubt us. We have great belief in the camp.”

If Mercer chafes against the idea that this Montpellier team – which lifted the Challenge Cup last year by beating Leicester by a point in the final, and include two World Cup-winning Springboks and three French Grand Slam champions – is still doubted, it is only because he is familiar with the sentiment.

He was introduced to the oval ball in Scotland where his father, Gary, a New Zealand rugby league player, was working as the defence coach of the Glasgow Warriors.

Mercer represented Scotland at under-16 level but would change blue for white and represented England at two junior world championships, in 2016 and 2017.

He graduated from Bath's academy and signed with the first team. When Eddie Jones selected him to be an apprentice player over the 2017 autumn internationals, it felt like a clear linear path to the top was mapped out.

Physical enough

“I was on track,” Mercer says. “Everything was working out well for me.”

An inevitable senior call-up followed a year later and he made his debut off the bench against South Africa at Twickenham. Two weeks later he started against Japan. Then he was cut loose without warning.

“Eddie must have had his reasons but he never shared them with me,” Mercer says. “Looking back I maybe got capped too early. I was 20 when it happened. I wasn’t mature enough, mentally or physically, to grab that opportunity. If it ever comes round again I’ll be in a better position to make that jersey my own.”

There was a suspicion that he wasn’t physical enough to bolster the English pack. He believes he has rubbished those assumptions after impressing in his first season in France.

“It’s a much tougher league than the Premiership,” he says of the gruelling Top 14. “I wouldn’t be selected if I couldn’t handle it. No one can claim I’m not up to it. But then our league isn’t really watched by many people in England. Maybe the people who say that are going on what they saw over the five years at Bath before this, and not what’s happening now.”

Against Harlequins, with more English eyes on him than he has had since his move last year, he stole the show in his 68 minutes of action. He advanced 127 metres from 13 carries, made nine tackles and stole one turnover.

“I broke every personal best for the season on my GPS monitoring,” he says of his player-of-the-match performance. “I really wanted to impress.”

What's more, he outshone Alex Dombrandt, the current England No 8. Their personal battle this weekend will be one to watch. Jones, no doubt, will be paying attention.

The England coach has been in contact with Mercer and the pair shared a drink after Montpellier’s 25-9 loss at Castres last month.

“I think he respects me more since I moved,” Mercer says. “What coach wouldn’t want a player to challenge himself?”

Either way, rules mean an England call-up is impossible until his club contract expires at the end of next season.

“That helps me stay focused,” Mercer says. “If I was playing well in the Premiership and there was England chat, I’d get sidetracked. Obviously I want to play for England again, but right now I just want to win something with Montpellier. I’ll let other people talk about the other stuff.”

– Guardian

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