I left cage fighting and jiu-jitsu behind to return to rugby

Few would have predicted that a New Zealand-born former cage fighter and jiu-jitsu champion would be in the running for Steve Borthwick’s Six Nations team. But like his impressive array of performances this season for Exeter Chiefs, Ethan Roots’ colorful story would make most people sit up and take notice.

Six years ago the combative flanker, who qualifies for England through his father, was working 10-hour shifts for an Auckland-based construction company as a construction worker after leaving school with no qualifications.

Rugby had been a feature during his school years but, after stepping away from the sport as a teenager due to stunted growth, the idea of ​​pursuing it professionally quickly faded.

In an attempt to curb his rebellious streak, Roots pursued other opportunities in mixed martial arts, which included a brief but memorable stint in cage fighting at age 16.

“I tore the guy’s biceps tendon,” Roots recalls. “He was a 27-year-old farmer from the far north and he just didn’t want to tap and I hit him with my arm. My mom still has it on video, not that she wants her to resurface. They defeated me in the first round!

The single match ended in a draw. But Roots’ promising career in Brazilian jiu-jitsu was confirmation that he possessed the raw athleticism and power to reach the top: he won eight different national titles, as well as a gold and three silvers at the Pan Championships. -Peaceful.

Ethan RootsEthan Roots

Ethan Roots was a Pan-Pacific Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion before returning to rugby – Richard Sellers/PA Wire

“The best way people describe jiu-jitsu is as human chess,” Roots explains. “I really enjoyed the physical and mental challenge that comes with it. I started to have my growth spurt, I reached over 6 feet.

“I was very serious about competing in jiu-jitsu, so I started watching my diet. There was also the excitement of seeing the results, so everything combined made it enjoyable.”

The time he spent wrestling on the mats and contorting others to strangle them prepared him for a return to rugby after his jiu-jitsu career was unceremoniously cut short. “Me and him [jiu-jitsu] The head coach’s daughter were dating at the time,” Roots says. “He found out and he didn’t like it and he expelled me from the club. It didn’t feel right to go back, so I didn’t, I started playing rugby and fell in love with it again.”

Roots had received a solid rugby foundation at Auckland’s Rosmini College, whose students include New Zealand-born Welsh flyhalf Gareth Anscombe, before moving into regional sevens, where he rubbed shoulders with Mark Telea.

His unconventional rugby route, which saw him juggle intensive shifts while playing for North Harbor in the New Zealand national provincial championship, meant he never appeared on the All Blacks’ radar.

“I’d get up around 4:30 a.m., go to the gym, have no idea what I was doing, but I’d get on the bike, lift some weights, and get out of there,” Roots says. “I was going to work 10 or 11 hours and then I was going to train rugby. He did it four days a week, rested on Friday and played on Saturday.

Ethan Roots in action during the Gallagher Premiership rugby match between Exeter Chiefs and Northampton SaintsEthan Roots in action during the Gallagher Premiership rugby match between Exeter Chiefs and Northampton Saints

Ten years on from their cage fight, Roots is sweeping the Premiership with Exeter – Bob Bradford/CameraSport via Getty Images

“I could work on Sunday to earn a little extra money, depending on how much money I spent that week. “Been there and done that, so I understand what a privilege it is to play rugby every day for a living.”

Roots would not earn his first professional contract at Harbor until he was 21, but was soon pursued by three of New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises. He ended up signing for Scott Robertson’s Crusaders and found himself sharing a dressing room with the All Blacks as Scott Barrett. “He was crazy,” Roots recalls. “It was quite surreal to have been on the construction sites.”

But he struggled to adapt to the rigors of top-level rugby. Roots made just one appearance for the club and had six minutes of professional rugby under his belt when he signed a two-year deal with the Ospreys in 2021. It was at the Welsh club where he reinvented himself and began harboring international ambitions before being picked up. to Exeter.

A hard-working tackler with plenty of bulk at the back, Roots represents a new wave of young Chiefs who belie their inexperience in the Premiership, where they remain in the mix for the play-offs.

As well as being appointed by Borthwick last week, the 26-year-old has already been considered a capable successor to Courtney Lawes. “He’s been a natural leader for us,” says Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter. “His maturity in the group goes beyond his age. He never felt like a gamble.”

In what seems like a coming full circle moment, Roots, whose father was born near Reading but emigrated to New Zealand when he was 15 with his adoptive parents, has connected with members of his extended English family after taking an ancestry test online. , even welcoming some of his biological cousins ​​to Sandy Park for games.

While the father of two is tremendously proud of his Maori blood, which he inherits from his mother’s side of the family (a large Maori tattoo stretches across his tattooed back), Roots has no qualms about wearing the red rose .

“Even if I had been born here, I would still be a proud Māori and a proud Brit,” says Roots, whose partner, Tessa, is an international basketball player for the New Zealand women’s team, the Tall Ferns. “I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I don’t speak much Maori. We didn’t grow up in the house with it, but I still have my family behind me. It is a great honor that they only mention your name and you have caught their attention. “I would be more than happy to take on the responsibility, if given the opportunity.”

If he is named in Borthwick’s England squad on Thursday, Roots could have the biggest fight on his hands yet – that of winning his first cap.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *