Gloucester have reportedly secured the signing of Zach Mercer in a move which will allow the back rower to represent England at the 2023 World Cup.
Mercer, named No.8 in the Top 14 team of the season after helping Montpellier to the title, has made no secret of his desire to resume his Test career and is believed to be close to completing a move to Kingsholm ahead of the 2023-24 campaign.
Eddie Jones will consider Mercer for selection in England’s pre-World Cup camp if he is to join a Premier League club from July, various teams have shown strong interest.
An extended training camp and four warm-up tests between July and September will then give Mercer plenty of time to prove his worth, and there are precedents for Jones bringing in players before they have played in the Premier League under a new contract.
Ben Te’o traveled to Australia in 2016, Piers Francis was in the squad that visited Argentina in 2017 and Brad Shields faced South Africa following his move from the Hurricanes in New Zealand the following year.
Mercer, a former England Under-20 captain who won two caps in 2018, fell out of favor with Jones after an infamous win over Japan at Twickenham. Danny Care and Alex Lozowski were others cast aside in the wake of that 35-15 victory four years ago.
After swapping Bath for Montpellier in the summer of 2021, Mercer has proved a big hit in France. He scored twice to cap a phenomenal performance against Harlequins in the Champions Cup in April and added another try in the Top 14 final, helping his side to a 29-10 victory over Castres.
During the regular season, after another meeting between Montpellier and Castres in November 2021, Jones had faced Mercer.
“I’m really impressed with how he’s growing his game,” Jones, who had visited France on a post-World Cup trip in November, said of the 25-year-old.
“For a young player to have taken the initiative to go and develop his game in another country is absolutely unprecedented.
“We are in constant contact with him and he is developing his game very well. We hope that he will come back and try to fight for a place and fight for a World Cup team.”
Speaking around five months later, Mercer hoped his displays in the notoriously grueling Top 14 would dispel any concerns that he might be too light for the international arena.
“I think a lot of people had a perception of me and I think the Top 14 definitely changes that,” Mercer told Telegraph Sport. “They didn’t think I was physical and I didn’t want to put my head where it hurt.
“You can’t afford not to make it in the Top 14 because you don’t want to last. If you watch any top 14 games I think you will see how brutal the league is. Every weekend is a war. I love life here.”
England’s No.8 pecking order has been uncertain since the 2019 World Cup. Tom Curry was moved there in the absence of Billy Vunipola before Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt were given opportunities last season.
However, injuries to Simmonds and Dombrandt prompted a return for Billy Vunipola ahead of the three-Test tour of Australia. The Saracens were among England’s most influential figures in a hard-fought series win over the Wallabies.
The presence of Courtney Lawes, Curry, Sam Underhill and Lewis Ludlam and Jack Willis means the competition will be fierce. Still, the quick and skilful Mercer, who is capable of covering various positions in the back row, will offer something different to the mix for 2023.
A move to the Premier League would not be his only route to further Test matches. He is also eligible for New Zealand given World Rugby’s new eligibility change which allows players to represent a nation of their heritage after a three-year cooling off period.
Gloucester already have a talented back-row stable including Lewis Ludlow, Jordy Reid, Jake Polledri, Ruan Ackermann, Ben Morgan and Jack Clement.
They also added Albert Tuisue this summer, but a lack of other additions so far suggests George Skivington, their head coach, would have the salary cap space to add Mercer in 2023.