The unsung Irishman who has been at the heart of Saracens’ transformation

MARK MCCALL MAY be the quiet leader but if you’re keen to tag someone in the Saracens set-up as a crucial but unsung influence, then performance director Philip Morrow is your man.

Like McCall, Morrow is an Ulsterman. 

He was previously the head of strength and conditioning for Ulster, then Ireland during the 2011 World Cup, and toured New Zealand with the Lions in 2017.

He’s has been at the heart of Saracens for the past eight years. In that time, the club’s two European Cups and four Premiership titles – as well as Premiership A League and Anglo-Welsh Cup trophies – are partly down to Morrow’s work.

Phil Morrow with his children after the 2017 Champions Cup success. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Morrow and McCall first worked together with their home province in the noughties, guiding Ulster towards a Magners League trophy in 2005/06. 

They were separated soon after that success but when McCall was promoted to his role as director of rugby with Saracens in 2011, one of the first calls he made was to Morrow, who he describes as “the best in his field.”

“Phil has transformed the club from a conditioning point of view,” says McCall. “There was a quarter-final against Clermont in 2012 which we lost and it was men against boys in some respects. We needed to change something. 

“But he brings much more than that. He has so much experience and is a brilliant guy with all the players.”

Before we go any further, let us establish what exactly a ‘performance director’ does.

“First and foremost, it’s about making sure that all the players are physically ready to do what the coaches want them to do, that they’ve got a healthy squad to pick from,” explains Morrow.

The other key element of Morrow’s work is weaving together every strand of the Saracens backroom into something that has been unbreakable at times in recent years.

“Professional sport has changed a lot in my time,” says Morrow. “When I started with Ulster, there were basically two coaches, a fitness coach, and one physio – four members of staff.

“Whereas now here at Saracens, there are five physios, five S&C coaches, four analysts, six coaches, as well as data analysts and sports scientists.

“It can be easy to only care about your specific area sometimes, you can miss the bigger picture. My job is to make sure all the departments have that bigger picture in mind, which is ultimately for the team to do well come these final months of the seasons.”

Morrow watches on during the 2017 Lions tour. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There can be conflict, of course, but Saracens have managed to peak in April and May more often than not in recent seasons. Constant communication and clear structures are the things Morrow leans on most to keep everyone moving in one direction.

Coming into today’s Champions Cup final against Leinster at St James’ Park, Sarries are good shape again, aided by the fact that their A team will play in the Premiership Rugby Shield final versus Newcastle Falcons on Monday night, also in Newcastle.

“Everyone has a big game to play,” says Morrow in explaining the value of having every member of the squad still fully engaged at this time of the season.

One of the unique things McCall’s Saracens have done with their players are the in-season bonding trips, taking the squad to places like Barcelona, Valencia, Oktoberfest, Cape Town and New York in recent years.

Last month, just days before a Premiership clash with Newcastle – Sarries won – the squad was brought to the Austrian Alps. McCall has lauded the value of the trips, although it took Morrow some time to accept that the boozy stints away were worthwhile.

“I pretend they don’t happen!” jokes Morrow. “When I first moved to the club, I almost couldn’t believe it. I was thinking, ‘We’re doing what? We’re going where?’

“As a young trainer, when I was more hands-on as an S&C coach, I would have been narrow in my focus as well. You think to yourself that if a player misses two weights sessions, he’s going to detrain and that’s going to be a problem.”

But Morrow has realised that skipping a weights session or two in favour of a session of a very different kind isn’t the end of the world.

“What you gain from the time together as a group is important,” he says.

The “superficial” reality of professional rugby – train, eat, train, recover – means genuinely bonding with team-mates can be tough and Morrow can see the benefits of the trips in how Saracens understand each other on the pitch. 

Morrow speaks to McCall. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Morrow’s role with Saracens has allowed him to see the athletic changes in rugby up close, with the Ulsterman commenting that the past four years have brought a gradual increase in the demands around high-speed running and high-intensity explosive efforts.

“The players are athletically phenomenal now,” says Morrow. “The top people aren’t actually that different. Way back, I would have had a player like Stephen Ferris or Andrew Trimble or David Wallace, who are just as good as the best guys are now.

“The thing is, everyone’s like that now. Whereas Stevie Ferris and David Wallace were freaks back in 2007, that’s not freaky anymore.

“That’s the way you have to be to play the game. The top-end has changed a fraction but it hasn’t leapt forward in the last five years. What has leapt forward is that everyone has to be that good.”

Former Grosvenor Grammar School student Morrow didn’t ever expect to be part of one of the best rugby clubs in the world, having had no interest in the sport growing up.

He was avid about hockey, playing with Annadale in his native Belfast, as well as with Ulster U16 and U18 levels. He always loved training and went down the S&C route with his education, culminating in earning a Master’s degree in Sports and Exercise.

It was his then-girlfriend, now his wife, Julie, who set him off on the rugby pathway, initially unbeknownst to Morrow. An advert in the newspaper called for applications for an IRFU role involving working with the Ulster academy. 

Morrow was managing a branch of Fitness First at the time, leading classes and cleaning toilets and wondering if he’d been right going down the sports science route.

“She put my CV in and I got a letter – there were no emails because this is so long ago – inviting me for an interview. I got the job and that’s how I fell into rugby.”

So, in 2001, Morrow began working with the likes of Rory Best, Brian Young, Matt McCullough, Roger Wilson and Neil McMillan in Ulster’s academy. Morrow modestly says he “was hanging onto the coat tails” of this talented young group as they progressed.

In 2003, Ulster’s senior strength and conditioning coach, Phil Mack, left and Morrow was suddenly thrust into the deep end.

Morrow at Ulster training in 2008. Source: Darren Kidd

“Michael Reid, the CEO of Ulster back then, called me. I met him in a car park on the Ballynahinch Road and he didn’t get out of his car, he just said, ‘Phil is leaving to go to Australia, do you want to do the senior Ulster team?’

“I was only 24 at the time, I was suddenly head of S&C for Ulster. Alan Solomons was the head coach and Mark McCall was the assistant coach. That was the first time I worked with Mark, that was the start of the relationship.”

Ulster won the Celtic Cup a couple of months later and, with McCall taking over as head coach in 2004, the province went on to claim Magners League glory in 2006.

All was seemingly going well, but Morrow admits he was still a novice.

“I didn’t know what I was doing at the start, genuinely,” he says with a laugh.

“Look, I always had a good understanding of basic training philosophy and I always loved training myself.

“I would say for the first five years in Ulster, I could make someone fit and make someone strong but I don’t know if I really got how to prepare a team, how to peak at the end of a season, how to manage load. I learned as I went.”

McCall resigned as head coach in 2007 after a downturn in Ulster’s form and Morrow had moved on within a year, taking up an offer from the IRFU in 2008.

Initially, that was to be as strength and conditioning coach for the senior Ireland team but when Declan Kidney was then appointed as the new head coach, he opted to bring in his own man and Morrow was redeployed as high performance fitness manager, a strategic role focusing on elite underage players in Ireland. 

Morrow was promoted to the position of head of fitness for the IRFU in 2010, succeeding the retiring Dr Liam Hennessy, who had been a big influence, essentially leaving him overseeing the entire strength and conditioning structure in Irish rugby. 

Morrow with Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell during the 2011 World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

All of a sudden, he had another job on his plate as Kidney called on him to work with the national team as their lead S&C coach.  

“I basically double-jobbed. The IRFU have Nick Winkleman and Jason Cowman doing those jobs now, but I did both. It was brilliant.

“I was having the cake and eating it. I had this strategic position, reporting to committees, but was also working with the national team in the Six Nations and with a World Cup coming up.”

Morrow felt Ireland went into the 2011 World Cup in good condition and they recorded their memorable pool stage win over Australia before an abrupt exit to Wales in the quarter-final.

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Two days later, Morrow flew to England and started his new job with Saracens.

“The offer came during the 2011 Six Nations,” he explains. 

“My wife was asking me, ‘Are you happy?’ and I was going, ‘Yeah, are you not?’ We had two young kids, I was double-jobbing so I wasn’t really home much. I was living in a bubble, working with the national team, thinking about a World Cup.

“When Mark rang and asked me to come… look, clubland is still busy but you generally get home for your dinner. I told Mark I would come but that I wasn’t going to walk out on Ireland before the World Cup, I’d only come after the World Cup.”

Morrow has since transformed Saracens into the physical behemoth they are today, managing to squeeze in the 2017 Lions tour, where he was an assistant to Paul ‘Bobby’ Stridgeon.

“It was a phenomenal experience. We won the European Cup in Edinburgh and I got up early the next morning and everyone was still celebrating but I went off into Lions camp.

Morrow with Saracens’ Maro Itoje on the Lions tour in 2017. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Credit to the coaches because how they can get a group of players together, and 12 of them arrived the day before we flew out to New Zealand! Then you have the level of competition against the Super Rugby sides and you’re trying to prep for a Test series in three weeks.

“I learned so much because you appreciate that everything doesn’t need to be perfect.”

But Sarries is where Morrow’s heart is now and he is very much at the heart of the club.

He relishes the trust the coaching staff and players have in his work, appreciating how he and his S&C staff are given a voice in decision-making processes.

“My job is quite simple in some ways, it’s not that complex,” says Morrow. “The complexity is trying to get people to believe in what you say. Everyone knows what to do, it’s just trying to get everyone to buy into that.

“That’s where the relationships are so important. The S&C, medics, the coaches – they’re all good friends who get on. Because there’s no hierarchy in the club, no ‘us versus them’ with the players and coaches, everyone’s in it together.

“It means that if I suggest something to a player, we end up getting to a good place because we all believe in what we’re trying to get to.”

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman tee up Saturday’s Champions Cup final and look at the backroom problems in Munster:

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