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Cutting past the waffle - The reason Zach Mercer hasn't made the England squad

BY Jack Tunney  ·  Friday Feb 16, 2024

When Steve Borthwick’s England squad was first announced for the Six Nations the biggest talking points were about the players who had missed out on selection. One name right at the forefront of the conversation was Gloucester number 8, Zach Mercer.

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Despite injuries ravaging the international squad, Mercer failed to find himself called into camp. With each passing week and each highly anticipated squad selection, the likelihood of his name appearing alongside the very best in the country was diminishing.

Many thought that he would, however, be a guaranteed shoo-in when it came to England ‘A’ selection for their upcoming international against Portugal. The second string side appeared to be the perfect opportunity for Mercer to showcase his talents within the international set-up – but again, it wasn’t to be.

GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 23: Zach Mercer of Gloucester celebrates winning a penalty during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Gloucester Rugby and Northampton Saints at Kingsholm Stadium on December 23, 2023 in Gloucester, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

His recent outburst claiming to be ‘done‘ with international selection can’t have helped the situation, saying in a recent interview with the BBC:

“I’m older, more mature, I put the international selection aside now, I’m done for the time being with that and I’m just going to focus on Gloucester. To come back and get given three weeks in a training camp and that was it, I was really disappointed with that,

“I’ve been open with Steve, I’ve told him my opinions on it. I thought I haven’t really been given a crack which is what I feel like, to not even be given a game to try and prove myself is tough.

“I just don’t feel like he values what I can offer as a player and that’s me being honest, I don’t think he values what I can bring. Obviously I don’t fit into the system that he wants to run and, whether I agree with that or not, it is what it is. My focus now is on Gloucester and England can take a step aside for the moment.”

RFU director of rugby performance Conor O’Shea during a recent exclusive interview with RugbyPass, eluded to the focus being on the future, aka under 20s players, rather than 26-year-old Zach Mercer.

Claiming that a balance needed to be struck between experience and youth, the squads have been chosen with the strongest squad for each particular match, indicating that Mercer is viewed by Borthwick not to be as strong as the other experienced back-rowers, and won’t benefit from the experience as much as the younger, less experienced players.

O’Shea understandably kept his cards close to his chest during the interview, delivering what many might consider politicians answers…but the fact appears to be that Mercer is extremely unlikely to be seen in an England shirt any time soon.

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“There would be players that Steve might pick tomorrow that would be ahead of some of the players that are potentially there now, and it’s getting that balance” O’Shea said.

“We said this right from the start about young players popping out of the U20s that we want to keep that connection amongst them as well as the senior players and it’s getting that balance. Listen, it’s a massive honour to play for your country at any level and this is a big Test match against Portugal, but we are trying to balance.

“You could look across and say there are a number of players, ‘Should they be in?’ Every position has been discussed with what’s right for this particular game as opposed to what would be happening if you were running out into the Six Nations, plus making sure we have the strongest type of team available.

“That’s the rationale behind some of the selections. And Steve has spoken to a couple of players who might think, ‘Are we second in, are we third in the team and we’re not in this’ and he has spoken to them.”

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“We want to improve depth in every position” he continued. “I wouldn’t go into individual positions, that’s wrong, but every player chosen has been chosen for a different reason, some are at different levels. There may be some players that would be included that Steve would call in straight away; there would be some players that will definitely drop down on Tuesday evening from the senior team.

“We know who they will be at the moment but we want to get through the weekend and see what Steve says. There will be a number of players that will drop down to this team to give it the experience.

“It has to be a really good experience and not just chucking a load of young players in without the senior heads around them to lead the way. That will happen next week.

“It’s just trying to get into the position of seeing some of these players step up and put their hands up to put pressure on the players above them. I would go into individuals quite happily, but it would be wrong to put pressure on them.”

Fans have called it ‘utter waffle’ since the explanation was released, with one Bath fan saying: “Mercer was one of the best U20 to come through the pathway and captained them to a grand slam and Junior World Cup runners-up! It’s twaddle waffle to say what he said recently that’s stopped him from getting selected and his face doesn’t fit!”

Gloucester legend Ed Slater wasn’t impressed by this explanation, saying: “In other words, they want to use players that have come through the 20s pathway irrespective of whether those guys are playing or not. Sounds like the pathway from age group rugby trumps form to me. Who comes up with these ridiculous ideas…”

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