It’s been a breakthrough year for Bath Rugby’s Zach Mercer and it could get even better as the 19-year-old leads England U20 in this afternoon’s World Rugby U20 Championship semi-final against South Africa U20 (kick-off 15:00 BST).
England booked their place in the knock-out stages with a dramatic 20-19 victory over Australia and it was Mercer’s crucial intervention, which ensured his side progressed in the competition. After fly-half Max Mallins put England in front with three minutes to play, Australia piled on the pressure deep into stoppage time.
With over 30 phases, Australia had pressed into the England 22 and into drop-goal territory. However, Mercer intervened, turning over the ball allowing his back to clear into touch and close out the game.
Next up for Mercer and England is the Springboks and the back rower admits that they’ll have to be at their very best to secure a place in the final.
Mercer said: “We also know that we now have a tough challenge against a strong South Africa outfit. We’re going to have to play some of our best rugby in attack and defence.
“Belief is a massive part of rugby and you are not going to go far if you don’t believe in yourself or the team.”
The squad has been buoyed by the achievements of the England U20 football team, who lifted the World Cup Final last weekend and believes their achievements will act as a huge motivation going into this afternoon’s clash.
“Firstly I just want to say congratulations to the England U20 football team, we’ve been following their progress in their own World Cup and it’s a massive achievement for them,” he said.
“We want to replicate it now in our World Rugby U20 Championship, that’s the challenge for us.”
Mercer has led by example captaining the England to three successive victories in the group stages and whilst he’s honoured to have the responsibility, he is quick to acknowledge the wider group out in Tbilisi.
“It’s a massive honour to play for your country and to captain them is an even bigger honour,” Mercer added.
“It’s important to remember though we have a leadership group and even though I have a C (captain) next to my name it doesn’t mean I make all of the decisions. It’s a collective effort. We have a lot of good leaders in this outfit and I think that’s what makes us such a good side.”
Mercer, whose dad Gary played Rugby League for New Zealand has seen his stock rise with some impressive performances in the Blue, Black and White aided by a wealth of experience in the Bath back row.
“I was given some really good opportunities due to injuries. Todd Blackadder said, ‘I’ll give you a shot’, and in my opinion, I took my opportunity. It was due to injuries but you speak to many players now that are in the professional game, that is how it happens; someone gets injured, you get your step up. First of all, that is how I got my opportunity.”
“I’ve worked very closely with Toby (Faletau). Toby is an unbelievable player, I get on well with him on and off the field, which I think is a massive influence as well, that is a massive influence.
“He sends me texts before games and I dropped him a message to wish well for the Lions.”
You can watch Mercer and his Bath teammates Darren Atkins and Josh Bayliss in action for England U20 v South Africa U20 on ITV 4, kick-off 15:00 BST.