In a parallel universe, Ethan Roots is fighting in front of thousands at UFC events around the world.
But in this one, he’s a back-row forward trying to make a name for himself at the Ospreys.
The 23-year-old was brought over from New Zealand last season as cover for Dan Lydiate when the Welsh international sustained a bad knee injury in the 2021 Six Nations.
This summer, Toby Booth, who was already a fan before Roots arrived, convinced him to stay and the Kiwi is now in Swansea for the next two years.
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But things could have gone down a completely different path.
Growing up in Auckland, Roots tried his hand at rugby union but “I wasn’t anywhere near fit enough to play,” so he tried league and “I wasn’t any good at that either.”
That’s where jiu-jitsu came in. At the age of 15, Roots picked it up to stay fit one summer- and it quickly became a passion.
“It’s an individual sport when you’re out there fighting but it feels like a team sport,” he told Wales Online.
“It’s one big family at the gym. That was quite intoxicating.
“I made a lot of changes as a person during that time as well. I got onto a good diet, got myself in shape and everything was going well. It was all to do with the fact that I’d bought into the mixed martial arts lifestyle and it was panning out for me.
“When you see results, it always encourages you to stick with it.”
The sport had a profound impact on Roots and soon he was spending five or six hours a day training at the gym.
It became a passion.
“One thing it taught me was discipline. I was a pretty obese kid and I wasn’t massively active,” he admits.
“I went into jiu-jitsu and you couldn’t compete if you were overweight. First you learn about exercise and that some pain is good pain.
“Then comes the discipline and the self-motivation.
“It also instilled a bit of confidence with confrontation. I was never a confrontational kid. I was bullied at school, bullied by my brother.
“But jiu-jitsu gave me that confidence and I started walking around with a bit of swagger. It developed me as a person and that helped with sports.”
It didn’t come easy and three months in he went to his first competition and “got absolutely hammered” by everyone he faced.
But he was not deterred and the results soon started going his way. In all, Roots won eight different national titles, a gold and three silvers at Pan-Pacific Championships and had trials to go to the World Championships.
He also got into a bit of cage fighting and a bit of muay thai – all before the age of 18.
Quickly it became apparent that this was the road he wanted to follow.
“At the time, that’s what I saw myself doing as a professional athlete,” he said.
“I didn’t know what sport I was going to excel in but I knew I wasn’t cracked out for any academics, let’s put it that way!
“I knew it had to be sport and thought that jiu-jitsu would be my path and maybe one day look at becoming a mixed martial artist and on to the UFC.”
But then something happened. He was let go by his gym.
“It’s a long personal story,” he said. “I got asked to come back but it just didn’t feel right for me to do that at the time.”
And suddenly his life was heading in a different direction.
Jiu-jitsu had given him a lot of things but, principally, it had got him in shape and when he returned to the rugby field he could run for longer and tackle harder.
He was now an expert at moving another person at speed, which would come in handy.
“When you’ve thrown somebody so many times, it just comes second nature,” he said.
“You can feel when somebody’s weight is going to go or when somebody is going to try and come for you.
“It’s about feeling people’s weight and pressure change. The breakdown is the main area and being able to manipulate someone else’s body.
“It’s just being able to shift people’s weight, understanding how the body works and picking on the weak spots. I learned that from jiu-jitsu.”
In his final year at Rosmini College, Roots trialled for the second XV. After his first session, they asked him to be captain.
And it wasn’t long before the first XV wanted a piece of him but Roots refused to leave the boys that he’d been training and playing with.
“Within a few weeks, the first XV were asking me to play for them,” he recalled. “I wasn’t that bothered about playing for the firsts. Plus, I’d been out for one week and the second XV got beat by the bottom of the table.
“I blamed myself because I wasn’t on the field and I didn’t want to leave them. They were a good bunch of boys and I didn’t think I’d enjoy myself in the first XV.
“I wanted to stay and captain the boys.”
Roots didn’t do his end of year exams and went straight onto the building site “which my mum wasn’t too happy about!”
He spent three years on the tools whilst trying to force his way through the system in New Zealand. It started at East Coast Bays under-21s before he eventually broke into the Prem side.
“Coming out of school, I wanted to be successful at rugby, so I was pretty serious about it,” he said.
After establishing himself in the East Coast Bays Prem side, the next step up the ladder was to convince Mitre 10 Cup side North Harbour that he was worth a punt.
In his first season in the Prem side, they got to the final but lost it in the final few minutes. To pile on the misery, Roots’ coach then told him he had missed out on a contract with Harbour straight after the match.
“I thought it was bad timing from him to be honest. Me being quite a young dude, I took it quite hard,” he said.
“We’d just lost a Premier final – we were leading the whole game as well but lost it in the last few minutes – and right in the changing sheds after the match, my head coach came up to me.
“He said: ‘Hey mate, Tom [North Harbour head coach at the time] wanted me to tell you that you didn’t get the contract at Harbour’.
“I was thinking: ‘Right, that’s perfect timing, thanks for that’.
“I was a bit broken and p***ed off. Losing that was pretty bad and to be honest I thought I was better than the guy that they contracted.
Ethan Roots during a game for North Harbour in 2020
“But every coach knows how to build his team.
“That being said, I was grateful for it because it really gave me the motivation to get off my a**e and get working, to earn a contract the following year.
“During the off-season after that final, I was training for two or three hours in the morning, working a 10-hour day and then coming back to training in the evening four or five days a week.
“I had a nice little chip on my shoulder to put in those extra hard yards.”
The hard yards paid off. The following year, Roots was part of the side that went back and won the final, which resulted in North Harbour giving him a shot.
Then things really started to happen.
After just five games with Harbour, three of New Zealand’s four Super Rugby franchises – the Crusaders, Chiefs and the Hurricanes – had put contract offers in front of him.
“All the boys at Harbour were trying to get me to join their team,” he laughed. “Shaun Stevenson was trying to poach me for the Chiefs, Bryn Hall wanted me at the Crusaders, James Parsons wanted me at the Blues.
“It was pretty crazy to think that seven weeks before that I was waking up at 4am to go to the gym and then on a building site for 10 hours a day.
“It was mad to see how fast things can change for you in the sport.”
But it wasn’t a difficult decision. As soon as the call came from Crusaders boss Scott Robertson, Roots said yes as fast as he could.
Suddenly he was sharing a dressing room with some of the best players in the world; All Blacks Scott Barrett, Joe Moody, Luke Romano, Codie Taylor, George Bridge, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, Richie Mo’unga and Sevu Reece, to name a few.
“It was madness for me,” Roots recalls. “I was in awe for quite a while about just how professional it was. I was a little bit behind the pace there as well. I wasn’t really a professional at the time.
“I didn’t grow up with all the boyhood dreams of playing professional rugby like most Kiwis do but when you come back from a week off and you’re joined by 10 or so All Blacks in training, it’s pretty mind blowing.
“In New Zealand, professional sports stars like that are on a pedestal and they are harshly critiqued in terms of how they live their lives. So it was interesting to see how all these guys operated in front of and away from the cameras.
“I learned a lot down there.”
But things didn’t work out. Roots made just one appearance in his season with the Crusaders.
During his time there, family tragedy hit him hard and, by his own admission, he was unable to focus on rugby and it cost him. Though he doesn’t look for excuses.
“A lot of that comes back to me,” he said. “I had a few personal issues going on, there were a few deaths in the family and I didn’t really cope with them very well.
“Being a fresh professional, I wasn’t able to put that to the side and keep my mind clear of all the stuff going on outside rugby.
“I wasn’t able to just focus on my job and that came at a cost for me in terms of my strength and conditioning, and that’s what cost me game time.
“I don’t really have anyone to blame other than myself.
“There are a lot of things I could chalk it up to but, to be honest with you mate, I let myself down.”
And so came the move to the Ospreys.
Head coach Booth had tried to sign Roots at the start of the season.
Ethan Roots comes on for his Crusaders debut in February 2020
(Image: Getty Images)
“This game requires physical attributes and he has them,” Booth told WalesOnline.
“When you can’t play open rugby, you have to do it tough and go through the middle of people, do the fundamentals really well.
“You need boys who can win physical collisions and from his MMA background, he enjoys the physical side.
“The more of that you get, the easier the game becomes.”
But the timing wasn’t right. Roots’ first child had just arrived and he didn’t feel like he could leave. However, when the chance to come on loan arose later in the year, he went for it.
Having made an impression during his temporary spell with his abrasive style of play, Roots was offered his permanent deal and, this time, couldn’t say no.
Although he admits it was a difficult decision, being so far away from his family.
“Yeah it was difficult. If I had been at home, it would have been a lot harder,” he admits.
“But I was here, I was enjoying it and there’s a great support network here at the Ospreys. The boys really get around you.
“All that factored in, I felt like this was the right place for me to grow myself as a player and develop myself into a force to be reckoned with.”
Roots is now living in Swansea, with his partner and their one-year-old son due to arrive in Wales next month. He hasn’t seen them since coming over in March.
So what can Ospreys fans expect?
“I like to think I’m physical on both sides of the ball, bring a lot of energy and a bit of mongrel as well,” he said.
“I’m eager to learn and get better and I feel like that’s crucial in this game because as soon as you get stagnant, you’re kind of useless.
Ethan Roots during a game against the Cardiff Blues in the Rainbow Cup
(Image: Huw Evans Picture Agency)
“As soon as you lose that ambition, you’re dead in the water and it’ll start reflecting in your performances.
“I like to think that, hopefully soon, that will all piece together into quite an exciting player.”
Roots added: “There’s a lot of competition at the Ospreys. Trying to get my hands on a jersey is the big goal right now.
“I want to get into the side and stay there for the next two years.
“Nobody knows me here. I had a name back home but I’ve got nothing here. So I want to establish myself.”