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Ethan Roots interview: I left cage fighting and jiu-jitsu behind to return to rugby

Ethan Roots

Few would have predicted a New Zealand-born former cage fighter and jiu-jitsu champion to be in the running for Steve Borthwick’s Six Nations squad. But like his impressive array of performances this season for Exeter Chiefs, Ethan Roots’ colourful 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 building company as a construction worker after leaving school with no qualifications.

Rugby had been a feature during his school years but, after becoming alienated from the sport as a teenager due to a delayed growth spurt, the idea of pursuing it professionally quickly faded.

In a bid to curb his rebellious streak, Roots pursued other opportunities in mixed martial arts, which included a brief albeit memorable stint in cage fighting, aged 16.

“I ripped the guy’s biceps tendon off,” recalls Roots. “He was a 27-year-old farmer from the far north and he just did not want to tap and I had him in an arm butt. My mum still has it on video, not that I want it to resurface. I got put down in the first round!”

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

Ethan 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 like human chess,” explains Roots. “I really enjoyed the mental as well as physical challenge that came with it. I started having my growth spurts, I got to over 6ft.

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

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

Roots had received a solid rugby grounding at Auckland’s Rosmini College, whose alumni include Gareth Anscombe, the New Zealand-born Wales fly-half, before dabbling in regional sevens, where he rubbed shoulders with Mark Telea.

His unconventional rugby route – on which he juggled labour-intensive shifts when he played for North Harbour in New Zealand’s national provincial championship – meant he never appeared on the All Blacks’ radar.

“I’d get up about 4.30am, go to the gym, have no idea what I was doing but jump on the bike, lift some weights and get out of there,” says Roots. “I’d go to work for 10 or 11 hours and then head to rugby training. I did that about four days a week, break on Friday and have a game on Saturday.

Ethan Roots in action during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Exeter Chiefs and Northampton Saints
Ten years on from his cage fight, Roots is tearing up the Premiership with Exeter - Bob Bradford/CameraSport via Getty Images

“I might work Sunday for a little bit of extra cash, depending on how much money I’d spent that week. I’ve been there and done that so I understand what a privilege it is to play rugby every day for a living.”

Roots would not secure his first professional contract at Harbour until he was 21, but soon enough was being hunted 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 All Blacks like Scott Barrett. “It was nuts,” recalls Roots. “It was pretty surreal, having been on the building sites.”

But he struggled to adapt to the rigours 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 Ospreys in 2021. It was at the Welsh club that he reinvented himself and began harbouring international ambitions before being picked up by Exeter.

An industrious tackler with plenty of back-row bulk, Roots represents a new wave of young Chiefs belying their inexperience in the Premiership, where they remain in the mix for the play-offs.

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

In what feels like a full-circle moment, Roots, whose dad was born near Reading but emigrated to New Zealand as a 15-year-old with his adopted parents, has connected with members of his extended English family after doing an online ancestry test, even welcoming a few of his biological cousins at Sandy Park for matches.

While the father-of-two is fiercely proud of his Maori blood, which he inherits from his mum’s side of the family – a large Maori tattoo stretches across his inked back – Roots has no qualms about wearing the red rose.

“Even if I was born here, I’d still be a proud Maori and a proud Brit,” says Roots, whose partner, Tessa, is an international basketball player for New Zealand’s women’s team, the Tall Ferns. “I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I don’t speak a whole lot of Maori. We didn’t grow up in the house with it, but I’ve still got my family across my back. It’s a huge honour to just be name-dropped and to have caught their attention. I’d be more than happy to take on the responsibility, given the chance.”

Should he be named in Borthwick’s England squad on Thursday, Roots could have the biggest fight on his hands yet – the one to earn a first Test cap.

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