Ethan Roots has squeezed a lot into 22 years. Earlier this year, on the fringe of the impending COVID-19 induced lockdown, he made his Super Rugby debut for the Crusaders. While this is a substantial achievement in itself, not many have risen through the ranks so fast. He only made his provincial debut last year for North Harbour, and – even more surprisingly – only got back into rugby in his last year of school. The reason: he was busy training for another sport.

At fifteen, he and his brother headed down to a local jiu-jitsu gym for a few casual classes. For those who aren’t familiar with jiu-jitsu, it’s a martial art – and now a combat sport – which involves a lot of grappling and submission holds (as opposed to striking). If you’ve ever watched UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), then you will have seen aspects of jiu-jitsu in action.
“We fell in love with it me and my brother, and ended up doing it for three years,” Ethan tells me.
“We started doing it just casually, maybe once or twice a week, and then started getting into it three of four days a week. The next thing you know you’re doing it every day of the week, morning and night.”

 

 

At sixteen, he had his first cage fight, and his opponent – and many of his future opponents – probably wished he hadn’t. It became pretty clear that once Ethan sets his mind on something, little can stand in his way – and it, of course, helps that he weighs 110kg and stands at 1.88m tall (I’d probably hesitate before getting in his way as well). He ended up winning the Men’s Heavyweight Maori National BJJ Champions Title (No-Gi, under 95kg), the Heavyweight NZG No-Gi Nationals Men’s title and the gold medal in Melbourne at the Pan Pacific BJJ Championship for his age group. Before turning 18, however, his time in the cage came to an abrupt halt.

The mistake was unfortunate, if a little ill-advised, but enough for the door to the jiu-jitsu world to be closed.
“My whole world came crashing down… I was literally spending six or seven hours of the day training jiu-jitsu on top of school. But that pushed me into rugby and I’m thankful for that.”

With Ethan’s talent, size and focus now given to rugby, playing representative footy appeared more like a “when” than an “if”. The Rosmini College second fifteen was his starting place, and while missing out on first-team game-time, he enjoyed it enough to pursue club rugby after school.

Before he got paid to play rugby, however, he needed a job, and that came in the form of building – and he wasted no time getting started.
“I wanted to leave at year 13 but my mum wouldn’t let me… So, the day after my last exam I was on a building site – I think it was a Thursday.”

The next three years would be spent building and doing concrete foundation work. He started his apprenticeship, before quite rightly getting distracted by rugby commitments. However, he’s definitely not ruling out a return to the building site.
“I’d definitely go back on the tools after my footy career is done because I loved it. I thought it was good for the body and good for the soul. And I really enjoyed being on site and having banter with the lads and getting stuck into some hard work as well.”

And what about his quick rugby ascension? After spending a couple of years playing Under 21s when he left school, he made his debut for the mighty Green and Blacks (the East Coast Bays prem’s team) in 2018. He played a vital role in the team that were runners up, and was a standout in the 2019 comp which the boys won. He played so well, in fact, that North Harbour came knocking. He was selected in the 2019 Harbour squad and quickly became a regular starter in the loose forwards.

The rest you know already. The next call he received was from the Crusaders, and his flights were booked soon after. For Ethan, it was an “unbelievable” experience – as it would be for most of us. Unlike most of the team who had played age group representative rugby together, he had been dropped into a professional environment at 22, and was now packing down next to some of the biggest names in world rugby.
“It was a cool feeling to be bombed into that pretty exclusive group of people who’ve played for the Crusaders… But it’s been a super cool experience. I love it down here… and happy to call it home.”

The Crusaders coaching staff and playing group lived up to their reputation. In Ethan’s words, it’s an “unreal environment… you feel at home almost instantly.”
Being in Christchurch has also allowed him to get into hunting, something he does regularly with his mates down there. Like most Kiwi blokes, he’s also partial to wetting a line and makes sure to lock in a fishing trip when he’s in Auckland. At the time of the interview, however, he was like the rest of us: stuck indoors in Level 4 lockdown.

While he’s made sure to stay on top of his strength and conditioning, he’s also picked up some new hobbies which might come as a surprise.
“Puzzles, but I’ve hit the wall with a couple of them. I’ve also picked up reading for the first time ever.”

And what about the future?
While he’s already cracked Super Rugby, Ethan is working hard to achieve even more in rugby, and I wouldn’t bet against him.
“I definitely don’t want to be stagnant… I want to keep progressing forward and to set some big targets and knock those targets down. It’s a process, so for me, it’s about just focusing on the next goal, the next target, the next objective to take those steps up the mountain to reach the summit.”

 

 

Article by: Ethan Neville