Phil Morrow calls Mako Vunipola the “Great Deceiver” and predicts the prop will be an even more powerful force when he completes his recovery from the ankle injury that has ruled him out of England’s Six Nations campaign.
Morrow is the Saracens Performance Director and joined the club after the 2011 World Cup having been Head of Fitness with Ireland and was part of the Lions strength and conditioning team on the 2017 tour of New Zealand.
Morrow heads up a world-class team of strength and conditioning coaches, sports scientists, physios and a nutritionist at Saracens that has helped transform Wallaby lock Will Skelton, who lost two stones and is now playing the best rugby of his career.
Vunipola injured his ankle in the win over France and is desperate to get back into action to help the club’s bid for a Gallagher Premiership and European Champions Cup double before setting his sights on a World Cup campaign with England in Japan. Vunipola was expected to be out for 10 weeks but the Saracens medical and conditioning staff will be working their magic in a bid to shorten that time scale.
Morrow revealed Vunipola is known as the “Great Deceiver” because the loosehead prop’s body language suggests he is constantly tired and in need of a break during matches. That, according to Morrow, is very far from the truth and he said: “Mako is the great deceiver. When you look at Mako’s body language and demeanour it appears that he doesn’t care. But he is phenomenally professional and has had to come back from some serious injuries over recent seasons and his dedication to getting fit is incredible. He is always doing extra fitness work.
“He is an incredible competitor who works unbelievably hard behind the scenes and will come back hungry to work. He injured his calf in October and returned significantly stronger than he has ever been. He made remarkable changes and while he may never ever look like an oil painting, he functions really well at what he does.
“In terms of this ankle injury, we gave him a week off because he also got injured in the Autumn and did a lot of upper body work during that rehab period. The mental side of recovery is as important as the work because when you are injured it can be challenging mentally and with a longer timeline it is important to take that into consideration. At the moment he is able to do work on the upper body and the other leg. We can use some stimulation to work on the calf with pads to make the muscles contract on the leg that is injured while also constantly icing it.”
Maro Itoje was initially expected to be out for eight weeks with the knee injury he suffered against Ireland but is battling to be fit to play some part against Italy with England facing second row problems. Morrow said: “Maro remained with England because he was going to be back playing with them before us and there is very good communication between the two parties.
“I don’t know if any player is a quick healer, but injuries recover at different rates. There are players who can genetically hold onto muscle or build muscle quicker than others. Billy Vunipola holds onto his muscle just like Maro Itoje. When you get, for example, a knee injury and you have it put it into a brace your muscle wastes away. Your quad wastes because it is not being used and so the first stage of the rehab is to get the muscle back because you can do that then you can accelerate the process.
“That can change the rehab in terms of recovery time scale and that is why an 8-10 week injury could see a player back closer to 8 weeks. A player who, for whatever reason, is slower at getting the muscle back would push it back to 10 weeks. Will Skelton broke his arm and was playing in 11 weeks while Calum Clark didn’t come back for 16 or 17 weeks with his break. Sometimes it is the type of break and recovery is led by the consultant.”
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The transformation of Skelton has been remarkable and Morrow is full of praise for the 6ft 8ins Wallaby who many in Australia believe should be recalled to bolster the team’s World Cup campaign in Japan. Morrow predicts Skelton can make even more improvements and added: “In the conversations we had with him when he returned to the club, he won’t mind us saying this, we said we were a little disappointed with the shape he was in. There are very few international second rows who are playing with one hand tied behind their back and Will was doing that because he was 10kgs overweight.
“Once you get a bit of success on the scales it gives you a boost along with teammates telling you that you are looking great. Not only did Will hit the target that was set, he surpassed it and we saw a significant improvement in his GPS data; explosive effort, high speed running and max speed running and all that got significantly better and it all supports the narrative.”
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