His father played for the Kiwis in a Rugby League World Cup final, but Zach Mercer is being tipped to make his rugby debut for England as a 20-year-old Six Nations rookie.
Mercer – who plays for ex-All Blacks captain Todd Blackadder at Bath – could be catapulted into Eddie Jones’ test team after injuries to experienced No 8s Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes.
The Daily Mail last year hailed England-born, Scotland-raised Mercer, saying: “There aren’t many Māori men who could scream the haka in a broad Yorkshire accent, kiss the red rose on their chest and then say: “I love the bagpipes – I still listen to them now even though I’m English. It gets me pumped”.
The former England under-20 team captain is the son of former Kiwis back Gary Mercer, who played 15 years of professional rugby league in England.
Mercer sr – now a rugby union coach in Scotland – hailed from Bay of Plenty and was a New Zealand Māori rugby league representative.
He had 21 caps for the Kiwis between 1987 and 1993.
Mercer played fullback for the Kiwis in the 1988 Rugby League World Cup final defeat to Australia, watched by 47,363 fans at Auckland’s Eden Park.
His pro career was spent in the north of England at the Bradford Northern, Warrington Wolves, Leeds Rhinos, Halifax Blue Sox and Castleford Tigers clubs.
After nine years with the Glasgow Warriors, Mercer sr is a regional academy coach with Scottish Rugby.
Zach Mercer was born in 1997 when his dad was on Leeds’ books and grew up near Halifax.
His first appearance on a rugby pitch came as a nipper.
“I was a mascot for Castleford Tigers [league team],” he told the Daily Mail.
‘My dad was coaching and I was really young – I was supposed to run out on the field but I stood in the tunnel and started crying. I ended up not running out. I was too scared!’
Mercer, 1.90m tall and 105kg, told Rugby World magazine in a 2017 profile that he always been a rugby union player despite his father’s league links.
“Dad actually pushed me towards union. I’ve never played a game of league.”
When Mercer was eight, his father got a job as defence coach at the Glasgow Warriors rugby union club, so the family shifted to Scotland.
Zach Mercer later attended Merchiston College, an Edinburgh school with a noted rugby academy and qualified through residency rules to play for Scotland under-16s.
But he pledged his international future to England, representing them at under-18 level and captaining them at last year’s under-20 world championships in Georgia where they lost the final, 64-17, to New Zealand.
“I have always wanted to wear the Red Rose,” Mercer told Rugby World, “so I had go go with my gut instinct and play for England.”
Mercer was recommended to Bath at 17 by former Bath and England lock Danny Grewcock.
He joined their academy and made his premiership in 2016.
He has thrived under Todd Blackadder’s coaching and has hailed Bath’s Wales and British and Irish Lions No 8 Taulupe Faletau as an “amazing” influence.
Mercer joined England’s squad as an “apprentice” for last November’s international series and is one of eight uncapped players in the Six Nations squad.
Jones told England’s Sky Sport this week that he thought Mercer was ready for a senior cap.
“He’s done well for Bath and really toughened his game up. There’s an opportunity for him.
“He’s a good young player but he’s got a lot of work to do on his game.
Jones said Mercer had “done a hell of a lot in the period that we’ve picked him from November to now”.
He’s got to continue working hard. He’s got some nice natural skills that allows him to be selected in the first place. Now it’s a matter of his hard work, his attitude, his willingness to do the things that hurt.”