Phil Morrow has revealed English rugby’s top players will need four weeks to be ready for the resumption of the Gallagher Premiership season. The highly-rated Saracens performance director sits on an advisory group for Premiership Rugby and is predicting it will take that length of carefully managed return-to-play training to get the reigning English and European champions up to speed even though the squad are following individual programmes which may not include their own weights sessions at home.
While second-tier rugby and a break-up of the squad will happen next season for Saracens after being found guilty of salary cap breaches, completing the current campaign – including trying to retain their Heineken title and getting their players ready for what could be a hectic international calendar in the final months of 2020 – is shaping the fitness planning devised by Morrow and his team.
Morrow was previously head of strength and conditioning at Ulster before becoming the IRFU’s high-performance fitness manager. He also toured New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions in 2017 which enhanced his position as one of the sport’s leading authorities on this key aspect of rugby.
He is now working closely with his strength and conditioning team at Saracens, getting the players mentally and physically ready for the resumption of the season. Saracens have been working to maintain the front row club meetings via social media along with virtual parties to maintain team spirits.
Keeping fit with restricted training aids is a challenge for every player around the rugby world, but Morrow is confident lost ground can be made up to allow players to be match ready once full-time training is re-introduced. He explained: “In a normal off-season by week five we would generally have the guys back to where they were before they finished the previous season.
“Generally their strength and muscle mass will be close to where it was at the end of the season. What we are a little unsure about is what will the first training week back will look like. In German football they have been allowed back in small groups as long as they are symptom-free and if that was the case then it would be different.
“We are looking at players regaining a level of strength to ensure it is safe for them to go into contact and make tackles and that should be able to be picked up four weeks before the re-start of the season. Everything is a stepped approach. It won’t be four weeks of strength work and them boom, straight into contact.
“Once we are back they can do one-on-one scrum work and then it can be two on two followed by the scrum machine so that specific strength work is in tandem with the other work over the four week period.
“Generally players’ running capacity will be pretty decent because you can only play so much PlayStation and Xbox. Even the front row boys know that when you don’t do your running you don’t feel great even doing it individually. We have given all of our players sessions – some old school – to follow with hill sessions and have told them, for example, where there are hills around St Albans. They have been running three or four times a week and we have kept talking to the players to show we care and check what their weight is and how they found the sessions.
“You can still do speed work which ticks those boxes while the big focus will be how to regain strength and power. Some of the lads have weight training equipment but we aren’t like the NFL in America where central funding meant each player got $1,500 of equipment.
“The players who do have weights will be at a different level to those who have been doing bodyweight circuits which are grand and you can slow the decline of muscle mass wastage and strength loss. That is all you are doing because you cannot hold onto it unless you have equipment.
“How quickly you regain that strength comes down to genetic profile so if you’re a Billy Vunipola you can build muscle quicker and when he comes back from injury he can get his strength back quicker than other players.”
One major plus for England and Saracens during this period is that Vunipola will be ready to return to action with the rest of the sport and could help the reigning Heineken Cup champions in their delayed quarter-final with Leinster in Dublin.
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Saracens were unsure of when Vunipola would return from his fourth broken arm but the suspension of the Gallagher Premiership, which is unlikely to start until the summer, has allowed the powerful No8 to fully recover from his latest injury set back.
Vunipola broke his arm against Racing 92 in January and Morrow said: “Billy will be right by the summer and that will have been 20 something weeks and his arm would be Ok. One of the breaks didn’t get plated and he wasn’t keen on surgery and we always support the player when it is a 50-50 call.
“Billy has just been unlucky with his injuries and no matter how hard we try and prevent injuries we haven’t been able to do that. The physios have been doing Zoom rehab sessions for the players at home so guys like Billy, Alex Lozowski (ankle) and Max Malins (foot) have continued their programmes. They will be in a good enough shape when we need them.”
In a normal season, Morrow would have been planning for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals with the international players having been given a break following the final Saturday of Six Nations championship. “Post-Six Nations we would have had Bristol and then Harlequins at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium followed by Leinster in the European Cup. All those plans are now worthless and we are now in a holding pattern. But I believe everyone will be sensible once we start back.”
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