Ethan Roots believes his barnstorming England debut was given special meaning by his unorthodox route into professional rugby.
Roots was named man of the match for a powerful display at blindside flanker in Saturday’s 27-24 Guinness Six Nations victory over Italy, continuing a breakthrough season for the Exeter Chief.
Yet as a teenager he fell out of love with the game when his lack of size prevented him from making an impact and instead he turned to jiu-jitsu and kickboxing.
Before long he had his only MMA fight – which ended in a draw – and was competing at jiu-jitsu, only to be expelled from his club for dating his coach’s daughter.
Driven back to rugby, he benefited from a growth spurt and, upon being presented with several contract offers, opted for the Crusaders in 2020 only to then be limited to a single appearance.
It drove the Maori All Black to seek his fortune in the UK and, having impressed at Ospreys, he joined Exeter last year, with his form soon alerting Steve Borthwick that England might have found their successor to Courtney Lawes in the number six jersey.
“Playing rugby professionally again and enjoying it – I’m so glad that I stuck at it,” the 26-year-old said.
Player of the Match on his England debut… 🥇
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 5, 2024
“I had a bit of a rough patch and came out of the end of it. I was lucky when I came out the end of that rough patch to still be in a professional set-up and I fell back into it, I fell back in love.
“The last six or seven months have been pretty hard to process. Everything has happened really quickly and everything has gone really well for me.
“A win in a tough place like the Stadio Olimpico and coming away with man of the match is pretty special. So I’m pretty happy.”
Roots was greeted by his mum Cara after the game in an unexpected visit and hopes she will also be present for Saturday’s round-two fixture against Wales, when he will face some of his former Ospreys team-mates.
— Guinness Men's Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 4, 2024
“My dad is back in Auckland but my mum flew out and surprised me – it was the first time I had seen her for quite a while,” he said. “That was pretty special.
“She arrived the night before the game. I don’t know how she planned it all. Her and my partner landed at the same time. It was a nice surprise.
“It is a long trip but she is going to see my brother when she is in London and hopefully catch another game.
“I know a lot of those boys in Wales and it would be great to have a hit-out against them. It is a big occasion and it would be my first Test at Twickenham, so I would be really excited about it.”