Anthony Foley with Craig Casey in 2005. INPHO

'There’s been a bit of craic with Killer saying that the Ardscoil lads are back'

Craig Casey is eager to earn his first Ireland cap.

FROM AS FAR back as he can remember, rugby has been an obsession for Craig Casey.

He started playing with his beloved Shannon RFC at the age of four, his first match coming against Richmond out on the back pitch in Coonagh, Limerick.

“There’s photos of me and I’m very small. Obviously, not a lot has changed,” said 21-year-old Casey with a smile yesterday as he spoke on a Microsoft Teams call from Ireland camp.

The 5ft 5ins Munster scrum-half got his first full senior call-up for the upcoming Six Nations, having trained with Andy Farrell’s squad last year as a development player.

It all started back in Shannon, where he was encouraged to improve from the beginning. His father, Ger – who is now a development officer with Munster Rugby – coached Craig through the age-grades, while he recalls getting helpful advice from Shannon legend Andrew Thompson

Casey’s father and uncle – Munster wing Mossy Lawlor – pushed him to work hard on his passing and Peter Stringer was a role model – “his pass was unbelievable” – but Thompson added another layer to it.

“I was really good off one hand and then Andrew told me I needed to get better – I was only five or six, maybe seven.

“He told me that the next time I came back and he asked me, I would have to be good off the right hand. That drove me on, I practiced and practiced and practiced, so then I went back to him and he was happy enough with it.”

sean-scanlon-garry-and-conan-osullivan-tackle-craig-casey Casey playing for Ardscoil. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Casey hasn’t ever shed that attitude. Experienced Munster coach Graham Rowntree spoke this week of being blown away by Casey’s diligence around training, highlighting the fact that he carries a notebook with him at all times around the province’s training centre.

Casey smiles and nods to confirm that he has it with him in Ireland camp too.

“I like to keep that just in case you need to take down a few nuggets,” he said. 

That said, the Casey household wasn’t just about rugby when he was a kid. His mother, Sinead, represented Ireland in gymnastics – “she’ll slag me that she wore the green first” – and his sister, Amy, won around 20 all-Ireland medals in gymnastics. 

craig-casey-scores-a-try-on-his-first-play Casey scores on his European debut. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s definitely a competitive household and you don’t get an inch in there!” says Craig. 

He did enjoy football when he was younger but after he got to the Kennedy Cup with the Limerick District Schoolboy League team and missed a penalty in the play-off, that was that.  

His uncle, Lawlor, played for Munster in the 2000s and Casey lived a stone’s throw from Thomond Park growing up, so the red jersey was part of the obsession from very early on. He barely missed a game in the famous Limerick stadium.

An outstanding photo from 2005 shows a six-year-old Casey as the Munster mascot with captain Anthony Foley before a game against the Border Reivers in the Celtic League.

“That was pretty cool and obviously with Axel passing away, it probably means more seeing that photo.”

The memories roll on. Soon after Casey had turned 10, his father coached Shannon to what remains the club’s most recent All-Ireland League title. Young Craig had been in the thick of things for years at that stage, down at training every Tuesday and Thursday evening, along for the games every Saturday.

He was only a kid but with the auld fellas in Shannon, “there was no minding themselves.

“I’ve been in plenty of dressing rooms when I was younger with them, celebrating wins and stuff like that.”

Casey remembers the “carnage” of the three days of celebration that followed the 2009 AIL title. 

On the playing front, Casey was marking himself out as a talent at scrum-half in Shannon’s underage sides. One of his fondest memories was playing in the U13 Pat Lawlor tournament – named after his grandfather – out in UL Bohs.

“We lost in the quarter-final in extra time and that defeat probably lives with me the most because that tournament meant so much to me,” said Casey. 

craig-casey Casey has pushed through with Munster. Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

His rugby rise continued in Ardcoil Rís and though they didn’t have trophy success, he loved his time there, captaining the school to the semi-finals of the 2017 Munster Schools Senior Cup. Paul O’Connell and Dave Kilcoyne were two of the bigger names to have gone before Casey on the rugby front at Ardscoil.

“Killer was actually slagging me during the week. He was like: ‘It’s mad being with your hero in camp, isn’t it?’

“There’s been a bit of craic with Killer saying that the Ardscoil lads are back, but yeah, it’s unbelievable when you see the likes of them on the wall [in school] in Ireland jerseys. You definitely want to bring stuff like that back to the school and it is cool to have the three of us in here.”

Casey played for the Munster Schools team during his time at the Limerick school, as well as captaining the Ireland Schools team in 2017, and says he benefited hugely from being integrated into the IRFU’s ‘National Talent Squad’ back then.

“Mark Butler was the Munster coach, it was kind of an in-school academy, so whatever you needed would be done.

“If you needed work on your nutrition or your gym, they’d have you in the gym before school, in the high performance centre sometimes, at half-six in the morning before you go to school. There was extra skills if you needed it and feedback, so that was what drove the progression on.” 

Casey went straight into the Munster academy after school but had a horrific time with injuries over the following 14 months, requiring three surgeries – knee, back, then the other knee.

It was a nightmare at the time but Casey reflects now that maybe it was a blessing in disguise to do so much work with behind the scenes in Munster.

“It made me work on a lot of things that I needed to get better at, especially my body, being able to cope with international and senior rugby.

“I think a lot more robustness came into my game and I don’t think if I hadn’t gone through that injury I wouldn’t be able to put back-to-back-to-back games together now.”

craig-casey-with-conor-murray Casey with Conor Murray. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Casey’s senior Munster debut followed in April 2019 and the province tied him down to a senior contract the following month. This season, Casey has started seven games and is thriving with the consistency of game time. He praises the Munster coaching staff for making him better and backing him to play.

Conor Murray remains the starter for Munster and Ireland, but Casey has been looking to learn from him as well as pushing to usurp him.

“Obviously, he’s a different player than I am but some of the things he brings you’ve got to take away,” said Casey.

“Coming out of school, my kicking game was probably the biggest thing I needed to work on in terms of consistency in my box-kicking.

“Conor’s kicking game is world-class, to be able to learn off him and see what he does has been brilliant, it’s bringing my kicking game on leaps and bounds.”

Casey isn’t one to shy away from stating his ambition and being in Ireland camp as a full squad member is something he targeted last year.

Now that he’s in, he’s focusing on the next step.

“Going through lockdown and stuff, it’s definitely a goal I had in mind – to be an international by the end of the year.

“Obviously, I’m not an international yet and I want to get that cap but it’s good to be in Ireland camp and it is a goal I set.” 

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