'My grandmother heard I was warming up and she ran up the road and forced her way into Thomond Park'

Rugby runs in Craig Casey’s veins.

SMALL MOMENTS CAN make massive impressions.

Anthony Foley with mascot Craig Casey A six-year-old Craig Casey as ball boy for Munster in 2005. Source: INPHO

In September 2005, the Border Reivers went to the old Thomond Park to commence a season that would end in euphoric European glory for the southern province.

A drab 9-7 home win gave little portents of what was to come, but before kick-off, a willful Limerick kid was running out as ball boy. His uncle Mossy wasn’t playing, but that did not diminish the impact of being surrounded by giants for Craig Casey.

“It was class,” says 2019′s Ireland U20 scrum-half.

“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.”

Steeped in Shannon, rugby and Munster Rugby flows in Casey’s veins. You can’t quite see it circulating when he does his thing. But it’s impossible not to feel as he fizzes around the field with relentless forceful intent. A 5′ 5″ lightning rod.

Many scrum-halves who get cast as the Petit General-style figure, but Casey purely encapsulates that spirit as he approaches every ruck; directing traffic, pointing furiously and unfolding his list of demands to forwards to keep pace and tempo on the boil.

He plays angry. And it’s a joyous thing to watch.

“There’s a joke,” he says in an attempt to explain the source of his high-octane playing style, “that myself, my uncle and my mother would be bitter people. The rugby bitterness from my uncle definitely.”

That would be uncle Mossy, Mossy Lawler, with 67 Munster appearances to his name?

“Yeah, he’s definitely known to be a bitter head,” jokes the now 20-year-old . Such qualities can be put to very good use on a rugby field and Ireland’s vice captain for the U20 World Cup has already shown his ability to channel his personality into physical interventions on top of the game management he brought to Ireland’s U20 Grand Slam-winning campaign.

“It has to be done. Something 9s aren’t really renowned for, but if the ball is there you have to dive on it. That’s something that’s driven by Noel (McNamara), Ambrose (Conboy) and Ciaran with the 20s.

“‘Scraps’ is what we call and there’s competition to see who gets the most scraps. It’s a good thing to be involved in and it has to be done at the end of the day.”

Craig Casey Casey in the warm-up before the call came to make his Munster debut. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Commitment to such ‘non-negotiables’ are a key part of why Casey’s stock is rising so fast. On the back of a brilliantly gutsy run through the Six Nations, his senior provincial debut arrived in April when Connacht visited the Sportsground.

He casually shrugs off the suggestion that the step up to senior level was in anyway difficult with a sharp ‘it was only four minutes’. The occasion itself was still worth celebrating though, and one family member made certain the landmark wasn’t about to pass her by even if word of Casey filling the 21 shirt only emerged after Conor Murray’s latest injury flare-up pre-match.

“It wasn’t really expected,” explains Casey, who had been running with the bibs in the warm-up.

“It’s something I prepped all week once I had found out that I was a travelling reserve. I think it was just about backing myself there and then. There was no second-guessing  myself. As soon as I saw him go down, I thought ‘this is my chance now to make my debut’.

“So, I just ran in with the team and I tried to instill as much confidence in them. So that, if I was called upon, they knew I was ready. It’s obviously something I’ve dreamed about since I was a young boy growing up around Munster. So absolutely delighted with it.”

“There wasn’t that many family members there because I wasn’t actually (named) on the bench,” he adds.

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’d say my mother was probably the most nervous woman in the stadium, but she had my father there to calm her down thankfully.

“I think I just played it like any other game. There was no real emotion to it until after it. Then you’ve realised you’ve made your debut for Munster. So, yeah, it was a bit of a shock to the system after the game, but delighted.”

Casey is currently in Argentina, where Ireland will attempt to build on their brilliant Six Nations sweep in a foreboding World Rugby U20 Championship pool against England, Australia and Italy.

Craig Casey Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Punching above his weight has never been something Casey has shied away from, and he is happy to carry the tag of Grand Slam champions to Santa Fe.

“From winning a Grand Slam there is going to be a target on our back. But I think we’ve got to relish that,” says the scrum-half.

“It’s probably a change from the Six Nations. I’d say England and France were the hunted and we’re probably turning into the hunted…

“I think it’s something that we talked about in the leadership group a few weeks ago that 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.”

Craig Casey and Olly Adkins Casey gets a good fend on England's Olly Adkins in the Six Nations clash. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Casey has been grabbing attention in more than just U20 and Munster circles, of course. Before being handed an upgraded development contract, the scrum-half’s name was floated around Leinster in an apparent – if mischievous – bid to replace the Munster-bound Nick McCarthy.

Perhaps such an offer might have been a head-turner for some. But even now it’s hard to imagine Casey swapping the chance to slip into that red jersey for anything.

“I was shocked it was all happening. It’s something I have dreamed of, being a professional rugby player for Munster since I was three or four, watching my uncle play there and running out as mascot with Anthony Foley.

“Since that day, I have set my mind on being a professional rugby player for Munster, so there was no indecision there.

“Once that (contract) was there, I was going to sign that. There was no second guessing myself, I was straight (there). I’m delighted to have signed it.”

I’d say Johann (van Graan) really hadn’t seen me play at a high level until the U20s Six Nations anyway. The training going into the Six Nations made me a hell of a lot of a better player, the quickness that we play at helps my game massively.

“I think the whole 20s experience made me ready to play that game in general. I now back myself to be ready to be a pro.”

Now, and then too.

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Sean Farrell

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