Zach Mercer will turn his back on English rugby when he leaves Bath for Montpellier this summer and on the evidence here, he will be a huge miss for his current club and country.
Many have questioned some of Eddie Jones’s selections after England’s awful fifth-placed Six Nations finish last month. The last of Mercer’s two Tests came in 2018 and he is clearly not rated by Jones, but his performance as Bath edged their old rivals Leicester was certainly international standard. Jones may not care that Mercer is departing for France but Bath certainly do. The 23-year-old No 8 was everywhere against the Tigers as Ben Spencer’s conversion won it for the home side at the death.
Bath’s England wing Anthony Watson, a British & Irish Lions certainty this summer, said: “Zach has been outstanding for the last four or five games. At first, I questioned his decision to leave the club and I was a bit hostile to him, but the way he has taken the opportunity to represent this club has made me feel like a bit of an idiot.
“I didn’t think he was making the right decision and I was standoffish. I spoke to him about and I understand his reasons a bit better.
When his contract is over there, he will still be less than 25. He has been world-class. For someone to do that and to be leaving at the end of the year shows what type of bloke he is.”
Despite Mercer’s heroics, Bath had to steal victory. Leicester looked home and hosed thanks to five kicks from George Ford, but when Will Muir scored in the corner, Spencer showed his nerve. The scrum-half’s kick in the 80th minute was from the touchline and on the wrong side for his left-foot strike, but it went sailing between the posts as Bath’s play-off hopes stayed alive.
Stuart Hooper, the Bath director of rugby, said: “I thought Zach was outstanding again. His ability to beat the first defender is a rare commodity in English rugby. Our goal is to push for the top four.”
Leicester led 9-7 at the break thanks to three penalties from Ford, who played very well against his old club and tested Watson once again with his kicking game and spiral bombs. Watson responded well, but it was the sublime Mercer who created Bath’s first-half try when he sent Muir over in the corner. Spencer kicked the conversion.
Ford put up another spiral bomb on Watson at the start of the second half and after several Leicester phases, the ball was spread right. Kini Murimurivalu could surely have scored himself but his pass gave Matías Moroni an easy finish and although Ford could not convert, Leicester held a seven-point lead. Ford did blot his copybook with a rare mistake when his pass was intercepted by Taulupe Faletau, who raced forward.
Bath, though, did not convert pressure in the opposition 22 into points. They were also on the wrong side of the referee, Luke Pearce, at the scrum and their discipline was poor. Ford took advantage with the boot but Bath still did not go away. Miles Reid’s try set up a grandstand finish and, although Ford kicked the last of his five penalties, Bath were not to be denied.
Spencer’s pass found Muir and he scored in the corner. Spencer had plenty of work to do with the kick but he nailed it effortlessly.
The Leicester head coach, Steve Borthwick, said: “We are disappointed with the result against a good team packed full of internationals. Bath were a top-four team last season. The players deserve credit for the way they attacked the game, but we have got a lot to do and a lot to learn.”