“Well, obviously it’s not the 21st you think you’re going to have,” Craig Casey laughs as he recalls the celebrations on what is a significant milestone in any young man’s life.
The Munster scrum-half turned 21 just over two weeks ago and due to the new reality which we’re all currently experiencing in Ireland, the celebrations in the Casey household were a little bit more restrained and muted than what you would originally expect.
“It was fairly chilled out. A few of the family drove by the house and beeped and that was it. Handed cards out the window. We just sat down as a family for dinner and that was that then.”
Casey, like the rest of the Munster squad, is currently on lockdown and training remotely but due to his respiratory condition, he has been conducting social distancing a lot longer than the rest of us.
“I have asthma so I was one of those who would be under threat if I get it. Since the first time it was mentioned in Ireland, my father and my mother have been really diligent with not allowing me to do anything bar train anyway.
“When we went into lockdown, I was basically on lockdown for the few weeks before then. Nothing has changed there other than the fact that we’re training really, really hard by ourselves.”
Casey provides an insight into the training regime the Munster squad are undertaking; running sessions, gym work and skills challenges are all par for the course.
If you have seen Casey’s actions on the pitch, it will come as no surprise to learn that his competitive edge emerges when undertaking the challenges provided by Munster senior coach, Stephen Larkham.
“It took me a few days now in fairness to get a good time. I was doing it with my father. It was frustrating. We were getting frustrated at each other as well,” Casey laughs.
Rising to a challenge, overcoming it and learning lessons is ingrained in Casey’s DNA. This attitude and determination has put him on an exciting path which has already yielded an Ireland U20 Grand Slam, a senior debut for Munster and a maiden try on his first taste of European action at Thomond Park.
There are multiple factors which have contributed to Casey’s rise and to get a clear understanding of this, we must take a look at a certain famous Limerick rugby club with a record nine AIL titles which has helped produce 20 Ireland internationals and three British and Irish Lions.
“I think my first training session was when I was four years of age and my father was actually the coach. He was training the U20s as well at the time. He was always training Tuesday and Thursday nights so I was out with him from a very young age.
“I think my very first game was against Richmond on the Well pitch in Coonagh, I remember that vaguely enough. Then my father started coaching the Shannon seniors so I was in and around the Shannon senior teams every Tuesday and Thursday and travelled with them on game day on Saturdays.
“I was never not around the club. Obviously, we had training ourselves on Sunday. My father coached me all the way up through U14s with Shannon and then I went into the schools system when you’re club-tied. I still remember the AIL final in 2009 when my father was coaching.”
That 2009 final, Shannon’s most recent AIL title, gave Casey an inkling into what it takes to succeed and thrive under the greatest pressure as he explains how he was present during the pre-match team talk and the post-match function at a local hotel.
Of course, Casey’s family have deep roots with the club. In addition to his father, his uncle Mossy Lawlor had a distinguished career in the blue and black jersey as well as making 65 appearances for Munster.
“In terms of my family, with Mossy playing for Shannon growing up and then playing senior for Munster, he was always someone that I looked at and wanted to emulate. Obviously, like you’re saying, the Shannon family traditions and constantly kids of players in the past have come through the club as well.
“Shannon have played a huge part in my rugby career to date and it still has. I still go there most Tuesdays and Thursdays to watch training even if I’m not playing. You can’t really get out of the club if you’re in it!”
One of Casey’s greatest strengths or his “point of difference” as he will later describe it, is his pass. The 21-year-old throws a terrific pass; quick and accurate from both sides as evident from any of his games for Munster this season or last year’s exploits with the Ireland U20s.
The Limerick man explains that the club also had a role to play in the development of this core skill and in particular, Shannon legend Andrew Thompson.
“I remember turning up to a Shannon senior training when I was young, I think it was Andrew Thompson who said to me, “Jesus, you have a really nice pass off your left, what’s it like off your right?”
“And I couldn’t pass off my right at the time, I was still very young. He was like, “The next time I ask you, you have to be able to pass off your right.”
“So that was something that really drove me on when I was young to be able to do it. And then it just started taking off from there. My father and my uncle have always said that the scrum-half’s biggest thing is your pass, so, it’s something I’ve been working on since a young age and it’s something that I will always do.”
Kennedy Cup Heartbreak
Like many children who are entering adolescence, a decision was made on what sport to stick with. Casey was a keen footballer. He played football for Caherdavin Celtic, Fairview Rangers and Coonagh United in Limerick. He impressed so much that he was selected to play for the Limerick District Schoolboy League (LDSL) side in the Kennedy Cup, the national inter-league competition for U14 players.
In 2013, LDSL reached the semi-finals and Casey has a rather painful memory of the 3rd/4th place playoff against Cork, one which no doubt still lingers somewhat based on his description of that day.
“I was playing Kennedy Cup soccer and then Junior Cup rugby. The last time I kicked a soccer ball was when I missed a penalty in the Kennedy Cup 3rd and 4th place playoff.
“It was actually in a penalty shootout and I was the only one to miss. So it was fairly devastating!”
Casey explains that the oval ball was always likely to be his choice but that day at the University of Limerick probably provided a bit more clarity on his decision.
The scrum-half entered Ard Scoil Rís, one of Limerick’s rugby nurseries with Paul O’Connell, Seán Cronin, Mike Sherry and Dave Kilcoyne among the North Circular Road’s school’s alumni.
Once Casey got a taste of what a professional-esque rugby setup was like, which he experienced playing Junior Cup with Ard Scoil, he was hooked.
He would then go on to represent a Munster Schools U17s Development side under the tutelage of Johnny Lacey who is now the IRFU’s High-Performance Referee Coach. In Casey’s own words, his game came on “leaps and bounds” that summer and chasing down the dream of becoming a professional rugby player would now be his sole focus.
As we know from Casey’s actions on the pitch over the last year or so, the 21-year-old looks like he will carve out a very successful career in a Munster shirt in the years ahead but at times, it didn’t look like that was going to happen.
Captaining Ard Scoil Rís to a Munster Schools Senior Cup semi-final would soon be followed by securing a place in Munster’s Academy.
From the outset, everything was going according to plan but Casey suffered some horrible injury luck which would keep him on the sidelines for 14 months.
It all began with a match against Leinster.
“So, I was just in the Academy, it was my first three months in the Academy and obviously, you’re trying to put your hand up for anything when you come into the Academy, just to show your hand.
“We were playing Leinster and I was the captain of the U19s team, that was the biggest game ever at that time. It was the first game of the Interpros. I took a bit of a bang in the warmup to my knee. I thought it was nothing really. I played the full match and then the next day I could not move my knee at all.
“I was on to the physios and they checked me out. They decided that they would bring me up to Santry to meet a consultant, Ray Moran, and he said I’d be better off getting it surgically repaired then. That was the first thing.”
The first thing?
“Then I had an ingrown hair on my lower back which going with the knee rehab, they had to decide which one to operate first. So they did the knee first and two weeks after they did the lower back. So trying to work the two hand in hand in rehab didn’t really work.
“I was on the couch sitting on one side of my body for the first three weeks not being able to move at all with the lower back and then trying to do rehab again. The scar for the lower back kept ripping so that wasn’t healing. That kind of prolonged it.”
Nine months later, Casey was fully healed. Back into another summer preseason until…
“The first week or two in preseason, I tore the other meniscus.”
So many setbacks, severe ones at that, would deflate the strongest willed of us. Nevertheless, Casey persevered. He credits some of Munster’s staff; Marc Beggs, Owen Tarrant, Lorcan Kavanagh, Damien O’Donoghue and Shane Malone to name just a few, as instrumental in his recovery.
But it was seeing his own sister, Aimee, recover from her own serious surgery due to scoliosis which put things into perspective.
“My sister had fairly serious back surgery during that as well. I say my mother and father were stressed to the gills but in fairness, they did all they could to keep me in high spirits.”
“It was easier to keep your spirits up, especially when you’re looking at [Aimee] trying to walk again as I said before.”
Although Casey’s time in the Munster Academy was hampered by injuries, Munster were clearly aware of the Shannon man’s quality and potential. After just two years in the Academy, Casey was upgraded to a development contract ahead of the 2019/20 season (he will rise to a senior contract next season).
Perhaps the defining moment came last year when Casey excelled with the Ireland U20s with his all-action displays in a green shirt helped Noel McNamara’s side to a Six Nations Grand Slam.
Casey’s performances were soon the talk of rugby circles nationwide with everyone wanting to know more of this 5’5″ bundle of energy.
That 2019 Grand Slam journey will be remembered fondly for a long time by Irish rugby fans and in terms of Casey’s career to date, he’s no different.
“Absolutely unreal. The Six Nations was something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. The first night down in Cork against England was unreal. Then you’re thinking, “Jesus, this can’t get much bigger” and then you come back down and you’re playing against France and it’s a full-house.
“That was the night we won the championship. That night was just crazy. To think that France went on to win the World Cup as well and we had already beaten them. It’s a bit surreal.”
As we’ve seen over the last 12 months, Casey’s pass is what sets him apart which is no surprise from what we have learned about his influences in Shannon. Yet, even in the confined environment he currently finds himself in, his practice in this regard is not letting up one bit.
“Well, I would say I’m absolutely obsessed with passing, to be honest. It’s definitely my point of difference and it’s something I’ve worked on since I was four.
“Now that we’re in lockdown, I’ll probably get about 2,500 passes a week in. It’s not something I’m letting go of, it’s not something that I’ll ever let go because it is my point of difference. That’s what will take me places, I think.”
Casey’s “point of difference”, as he describes it, immediately raises the question as to why he needs it and whether if it is due to his stature. Standing at 5’5″, he will most likely always be the shortest man on the pitch and in a sport which has often put an increasing emphasis on size and power in recent years, there are some who believe this could be seen as a potential weakness.
The Limerick man refutes this with absolute conviction.
“It’s funny because I actually don’t really care that I’m really small. Obviously, there will be a lot of people that will say, “Jesus, he’s too small” and stuff like that. But growing up, I was always the smallest kid on the field and it just made me work harder at the basics of the game like you said like my pass.
“I’ve always had to work harder at being able to tackle right rather than using my size to try and kill someone. And then, funnily enough, sometimes it works in your favour, like you’re already low to the floor, you can win penalties for high tackles, you can chop people easier or if a big fella runs into you high, you have an advantage of dumping him on his arse.
“I’ve always kind of taken it as a challenge to me. I love the challenge of being small. You look at Faf de Klerk and Aaron Smith, probably the two smallest in the world and they’re absolutely brilliant as well so they’re the two that I’ve looked at to try and grow my game as well.”
From listening to Casey speak about overcoming adversity, it’s clear that he’s a passionate person. This is also evident in how he plays the game, often roaring at his pack to present clean ball or even giving the opposition some stick as Welsh flanker Dan Lydiate will attest.
It’s certainly an old-school way of going about things but it’s something which is undoubtedly appreciated by the Munster faithful, that never-say-die and underdog attitude. And as Casey explains, it’s in his DNA and always has been.
“Yeah, I’ve definitely always been like that growing up,” Casey says with a chuckle.
“Whether its tag rugby on the street or a game in Thomond Park, I’m probably all the same. I remember, someone texted me after one of the games and said, ‘This is ridiculous, this is like when you were playing tag rugby in Kilkee on the beach.’
“The same amount of competitiveness. It’s something that I won’t let go. It’s probably in the family as well. Myself, my mother and my uncle are probably known as bitter people! It probably comes from there.”
As the conversation draws to a close, thoughts are cast to the future and getting back on the pitch. Casey admits that the current pandemic has made him realise even further just what sport means to people which only increases his desire to run out once again at Thomond Park or Irish Independent Park.
The excitement in Munster circles around Casey’s development and potential will increase once again once rugby resumes but the 21-year-old recalls a piece of advice he received which is closely aligned to the late Anthony Foley’s mantra when it came to dealing with the media and public perceptions.
“I think the best piece of advice was, ‘You’ve got to take the good with the bad’. So if you’re taking all the good articles and stuff like that about yourself, then you’ve got to believe the bad articles about yourself.
“I don’t really take much notice of them in general. Now, my mother would probably, she’d be the one that loves reading articles and stuff like that. But she’s been warned that if you’re reading all the good articles, you’ve got to read some bad comments as well.
“It’s not something that I really take notice of in general. I suppose you can’t let it get to you if it’s good or bad.”
Looking back on Casey’s career to date, there’s little that has gotten to him and if it has, even for the briefest of moments, he has overcome it.
It’s what he does.