Craig Casey’s Munster debut wasn’t entirely conventional.
The Limerick native has enjoyed somewhat of a meteoric rise since he first made a name for himself in the Munster Schools Senior Cup before joining Munster’s Academy almost two years ago.
Progression into the Ireland U20s set-up soon followed but injury hampered Casey’s season in 2018. He returned this year with a point to prove and was one of the stand-out performers during Noel McNamara’s side’s triumphant Six Nations campaign.
With such success at international level, one would have assumed a senior provincial debut was on the cards but it came much sooner than Casey expected.
In April when Connacht visited Thomond Park, Conor Murray was named to start with Neil Cronin on the bench. However, the Ireland and Lions star was withdrawn following the warm-up meaning Cronin was promoted to the starting team with Casey a late call-up to the matchday squad.
He had just turned 20 less than 10 days previously yet Casey took the occasion in his stride when he was called upon by Johann van Graan in the very late stages of the game. His family, however, were less calm about the situation.
“There wasn’t that many family members there because I wasn’t actually on the bench. For the Six Nations, there was about 20 people down there. Obviously, when I was called in, there was a rush to get to the TV screen.
“My grandmother actually heard I was warming up and she ran up the road and forced her way into Thomond Park! She actually only arrived for the last 10 minutes.
“My two parents were there and I say my mother was probably the most nervous woman in the stadium but she had my father there to calm her down thankfully.”
It was only after the game that the realisation hit that he had achieved his life long dream of playing for Munster. He took to social media to share a picture of himself and the late Anthony Foley at a Munster game 14 years ago, a game he will never forget.
“I remember the old Thomond Park obviously. I think I was six at the time. I don’t what year it was, maybe the year before they won the Heineken Cup, I think 2005.
“It was class. I still remember running out with Axel and looking up at the players in the tunnel and thinking ‘Jeez, this is really happening.’
“I still have Peter Stringer’s jersey from that season as well at home. My uncle got it for me for my Communion.
“Look, it’s something I have dreamt about since that day, to put on a Munster jersey and luckily I have now.”
With that achievement ticked off the bucket list, attention now firmly turns back to the international set-up with the U20 World Cup kicking off next week in Argentina.
Casey has once again been named as the vice-captain of an Ireland squad who, following their Six Nations win, will be among the favourites in the tournament.
However, their route to the knockout stages is anything but easy as they were drawn in Pool B alongside Australia, Italy and England.
They face their neighbours in the opening game on Tuesday and Casey is aware that the side will have a target on their back following their success earlier this year.
“You have to beat the best to be the best.
“I’d say England and France were the hunted and we’re probably turning into the hunted… The best way to not be hunted is you go hunting as well.
“Look, we really need a good start against England and they will be gunning for us like the first game in the Six Nations.
“It will be a hard test but I think if we win that game, which we will back ourselves to do, it will set us up nicely.”