Sale Sharks have been tapping into Manchester City’s experience of dealing with rapid turnarounds between matches as they prepare for a return to Gallagher Premiership action that involves playing three rounds of midweek fixtures.

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The heavy workload is needed to complete the remaining nine rounds of matches in the 2019/20 season as the clubs clear the backlog of fixtures caused by the Covid-19 lockdown. It will push players to physical and mental extremes – although there will be limits to the number of minutes individuals can play. 

To prepare for this unprecedented challenge, Steve Diamond, the Sale director of rugby, has been discussing managing player workloads with the Manchester City football staff and has also taken advice from Preston North End and Stockport County. Sale and Manchester City have close ties, with the Premiership rugby club now using the former Premier League champions’ old training complex at Carrington. 

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Ex-Clermont and Canada lock Jamie Cudmore guest on The Lockdown, the RugbyPass pandemic interview series

John Kirkpatrick, Sale’s head of strength and conditioning and a former professional rugby league player, has been masterminding the return to play protocols for the club’s high-profile squad ahead of a league campaign that resumes with them in second place behind Exeter Chiefs.

The work that Kirkpatrick’s team has been undertaking will be tested on August 14 when Sale travel to Harlequins for the game that will signal the restart of the Premiership season. Matches against Exeter, Wasps and Bristol will then follow over the next 15 days.

While the Sale players – like every other Premiership squad – were given individual training regimes to follow during the lockdown, many of the players returned up to six kilograms lighter. There were two players who returned to Carrington for testing who were “four to five kilos” heavier. It will come as no surprise to discover that the two in question were the highly competitive twins, Tom and Ben Curry, who patently loved weight training against each other.

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Fitzpatrick has overseen the return to fighting weight of the rest of the forwards and while the players have been allowed a lighter week, things will ramp up again on Monday in preparation for that opening game against Quins. He told RugbyPass: “We have chatted to quite a few football clubs about what they did with a congested fixture list and it is a case of recovering as best you can, squad rotation and managing the minutes they play. 

“Steve is in touch with Manchester City quite a lot, and also Stockport and Preston North End. They are in the business of turning guys around after two or three days and while it is a different sport, there is a lot to learn about how they look after their players.

“One of the key things in this block of work has been running a full squad, going through all the drills, making sure they are up to speed with all the calls. We are going to have to rely on the full squad and some of the academy guys will get game time. We are not used to that amount of games in a week and normally it comes down to what you have done in a normal pre-season. This has been a more condensed pre-season and we have prepared the boys really well over the last six or seven weeks. 

“When the boys were in lockdown training at home was their priority and when we got them back in they were in pretty good aerobic condition which allowed us to move on to position-specific conditioning with the backs and back rowers running high-velocity speeds and working on more conditioning stuff with the front rowers.

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“We conditioned hard for four weeks and then for three weeks we have conditioned on pads and drills. We found that a number of guys had lost a fair bit of weight during the lockdown, up to six or seven kilos because the lads were used to four weights sessions in a high-performance gym but then had to rely on weight circuits at home. 

“We use GPS to measure metres per minute within drills to replicate worse case scenarios in games. We try and get those drills as specific as possible and so when they are in those frantic periods in games they are able to cope, make decisions and execute skills under that fatigue. We are looking at backs moving at a pace which means that when they go into games it doesn’t catch them out and they can cope with it.”

For Sale’s 2019 World Cup winners Faf de Klerk and Lood de Jager – plus Tom Curry who was in the England team that lost the final to South Africa – the break from rugby action has been a real bonus with all three raring to go, according to Fitzpatrick. “Across the board, the guys came back in great shape. I do believe the three guys have benefitted from downing tools both mentally and physically. You can see with the three that they are rejuvenated.

“Tom and Ben Curry were the two who came back in having put on four or five kilos of muscle and they are naturally fit lads who had a chance to focus on gym work. Any conditioning we do with Tom and Ben there are so many arguments about who got there first. 

“It is great because they are constantly pushing each other. Tom has done amazing things and Ben has been one of our best players and this is going to be a really big season for him. In training, there is nothing between them.”

While the rest of the sport struggles to tell the difference between the identical Curry twins, Fitzpatrick has no trouble working it out having been around the boys since they were 17-years-old.” To me they don’t seem similar, they have different personalities and I can even tell them apart from behind,” he added.

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