Munster follows AC Milan’s example of trying to hold back Father Time
Reds Maldini project could prove hugely significant for Irish rugby, writes Hugh Farrelly
FOR followers of the 'beautiful game', the names glide off the tongue... Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and the finest of them all... Paolo Maldini.
Aside from being wonderfully graceful Italian footballers, these players are linked together by their remarkable longevity (Maldini and Costacurta played top-level football into their 40s, Baresi to 37) and the fact they drew their inspiration and energy from the same source -- AC Milan.
The Italian club has become renowned for enduring excellence, a trait that persists into their current squad where you find the likes of Clarence Seedorf (36 in April), Filippo Inzaghi (38), Alessandro Nesta (36 in March) and Gianluca Zambrotta (35 in February).
It cannot be simply the benevolent weather and urbane surroundings of Italy's trendiest city, so what makes Milan the Tir na nOg for footballing superstars?
The answer lies in Milanello, a state-of-the-art fitness centre 50km north of Milan and home to the famous 'Milan Lab' -- their High Tech Scientific Research Centre.
The brainchild of the club's Belgian doctor Jean-Pierre Meersseman, the lab was set up in 2002 as an "ideal combination of science, technology, IT and psychology".
Every aspect of a player's make-up is analysed, from diet, sleep patterns and characteristic movements down to the type of shoes and clothes they wear, with the stated aim being to help athletes achieve the optimum performance, reduce the risk of injury and help the decision-making process central to the well-being of every professional athlete.
The lab's development has been traced back to the signing of Fernando Redondo from Real Madrid in 2000. The Argentinian was a sublime talent but when he signed for Milan, his body did not meet the standard required and he barely played during his four-year stint at the club.
Now, players have to meet exacting standards before they join. Including David Beckham. His two loan spells at Milan may have been viewed as a cynical attempt to cash in on his marketing pull, but Beckham would not have made it through the doors had it not been for his talent and capacity to defy the passing years.
Beckham was put through rigorous tests on his first visit to Milanello to determine if the then 33-year-old was worth the risk. Milan found him to be a remarkable athlete and (after asking him to wear mouth support until he got dental work done because they felt his balance would be affected) predicted that, like Maldini, he was capable of playing into his 40s.
The Milan philosophy is simple: take every conceivable step to ensure new signings meet the criteria demanded and, when you have quality, seek to preserve it for as long as possible.
Never has the Milan approach seemed so relevant for Irish rugby. The success of the game in this country over the past 10 years was founded on what became known as 'the golden generation'. Some have already passed into retirement, others are now into their 30s, and losing the bulk of them in a short space of time would leave a void that could take several years to fill sufficiently.
The 'Holy Trinity' of that generation are Brian O'Driscoll (33 later this month), Ronan O'Gara (34) and Paul O'Connell (32). O'Driscoll is currently recovering from shoulder surgery but hoping to return fitter and stronger, O'Gara is playing as well as ever and O'Connell, looking back to his best after his injury problems last season, has just signed a two-year deal.
And there are many other international-quality players in their 30s like Mike Ross, Gordon D'Arcy, Donncha O'Callaghan, Denis Leamy, Leo Cullen, Jerry Flannery and Tom Court that Ireland need to hold onto as long as possible to compete with the better-resourced nations.
Bryce Cavanagh has been head of fitness with Munster for the last six months.
The Australian's CV makes for impressive reading. He has just come from a five-and-a-half year stint with AFL heavyweights Sydney Swans, where he worked with Irish players Tadhg Kennelly, Brendan Murphy and Chris McKeigue (he describes the Irish players as all having a "ridiculously good work ethic") and has also worked with the West Indian cricketers and NSW Waratahs Super rugby team.
Now it is Munster and, in the short time he has been with the province, Kavanagh has introduced methods that have won the admiration of the players and charted a path for the future.
Chief among them is 'The Maldini Project', based on the example of the AC Milan legend and designed to get the maximum benefit from Munster's 30-something stars.
"It has become quite holistic," says Cavanagh. "Go back 15 years, and rugby broke players and the physio's job was to fix them. You flogged players until they broke and the cream rose to the top, the ones that didn't get injured became the best -- we can't do that anymore, certainly not in Ireland.
"We don't have the same depth of playing talent as South Africa, England, New Zealand or France, we have to look after our talent.
"So you look at it holistically, you look at lifestyle, the physical, the mental. It's no longer the big three of strength, speed and conditioning, it's way beyond that.
"We are running a project called 'The Maldini Project' and Paolo Maldini is the role model we are using for these guys. Why are you thinking it is the end just because you are a certain age?
"You can't buy experience," adds Cavanagh. "You can't just turn to a guy who is 23 and give that experience, so these guys are ridiculously valuable.
"If we can physically sort their bodies out, the only thing that will cause them to retire is the mental issue of whether they want to do it anymore.
"So, we need to treat them differently with this project and a lot of it is about the time they are away from training. We can control what they do for two or three hours, but what do you do for the other 22? That comes down to lifestyle and the holistic approach again.
"The overall project is ridiculously tailored," he adds. "I have an over-riding edict with the guys who are working for me, based around controlled individualisation. It's not 52 individual programmes, we need to group guys and then cater for them individually on the edges.
"We run a programme called 'flippy, floppy, stiffy' so the guys who are floppy are put into a group, the guys who are quite stiff are put into a group and the guys who have a bit of both are put into a group, rather than a blanket approach.
"Our guys come in every morning and we do a thing called a recovery market, how well have you recovered? It give us an indication of can we push this guy today or do we have to pull him back?
"Rugby is an intensely physical game and it is our job to give these players the tools to make sure they can take the punishment well into their 30s. We have got a group of players in Munster at that stage and some of them are in the cream of the crop in their position in the world -- why should they stop playing if we manage them correctly?"
Why indeed? At a time when maintaining our best home-grown players for as long as possible has assumed monumental importance, Cavanagh and his 'Maldini Project' might just be pointing the way forward.