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Craig Casey – “I Can See Exactly Why He’s Where He Is Now”

2nd March 2021 By The Editor

Craig Casey Munster

When Craig Casey entered the fray during the 63rd minute at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome to make his senior Ireland debut, there were plenty of people back in Limerick and Munster bursting with pride.

In normal times, friends and family would have travelled to the Eternal City to mark the occasion but that didn’t diminish the moment or the achievement as those involved in Casey’s development reflect on the scrum-half’s rise to international rugby.

Gerry Casey is in the unique position of not only being Craig’s father but he also played a major role in his development as he coached his son during the early days out in Coonagh with Shannon RFC and also in Ardscoil Rís where his son represented the school at Junior and Senior Cup level.

Gerry, who is a Rugby Development Officer (RDO) with the province, spoke to Munster Rugby soon after his son was named in the overall Six Nations squad at the end of January.

“It was a pretty surreal moment to tell you the truth,” Gerry began.

Craig Casey during his Ireland debut against Italy

“Craig was doing his normal work for Munster. I was in one room, actually watching a bit of rugby and he just said, ‘Oh, I made the Six Nations squad.’ That was it, like. Just typical Craig. So I met him in the kitchen going, ‘What?’ It was brilliant especially because the four of us were home, his sister Aimee and my wife as well. We celebrated it brilliantly on the Monday, well I did!

“Craig took it in his stride, obviously very happy and thrilled to be going up there. The excitement in the house was fantastic. A lot of brilliant phonecalls to make especially during lockdown. We actually left it until the Monday when the squad was announced so then all the phone calls started coming in. It was brilliant.”

As Gerry explains it’s difficult to remember a time when Craig wasn’t running around the pitches out in Coonagh with a ball in hand, the love of the sport was clearly demonstrated by his son from an early age.

“Like any Dad, it’s great when any of your children have an interest that you have. From day dot, Craig was running around with a ball. As usual, going out to Coonagh, because you’re involved in rugby, you’re asked to give a hand. I started with the Minis and Craig wanted to go out when he was really young so he was running around having a ball!”

Former Shannon scrum-half and club captain Fiach O’Loughlin recalls seeing a young Craig “always with a ball” during his playing days and it comes as no surprise to the Munster Rugby Coach & Player Development Officer that the 21-year-old has arrived at the international stage.

“It would have been years ago, I’m not telling my age but when I was playing with Shannon, Craig was always there,” O’Loughlin said.

Craig Casey scores his first try for Munster during the Champions Cup Round 6 clash with Ospreys in January 2020, ©INPHO

“He always had a rugby ball with him. He was either practising his passing, practising his kicking. What people mightn’t know is that Craig is an unbelievable place-kicker as well. He hasn’t got the chance to show it on the big stage yet but he’s a serious kicker.

“So I would have encountered him many years ago as a young lad, I think he’s still the same height then as he is now! He was always with a ball, always around rugby, always learning, always practising. I can see exactly why he is where he is now.”

Shannon, as Fiach explains, also provided a nurturing environment for Casey to develop from a young age.

“It’s absolutely brilliant. I think Craig had over 100 Dads, not just Gerry when he was growing up. He was like a kid to all of us from being around all the time. Shannon is such a fantastic club like that. The minute your four-year-old or five-year-old boy or girl goes in there, you’re part of a family straight away. That rugby family is second to none.

“It would give you goosebumps talking about it and thinking about the years of history that has been there. A fantastic club and really brilliant for him to be involved the whole way through that. That has been a big help to him.”

In the Casey household and the wider family, there would have been no shortage of role models for Craig to look up to. His father was a talented rugby player in his own right while his uncle, Mossy Lawler, represented Munster on 65 occasions. His mother, Sinead, represented Ireland in gymnastics while his sister, Aimee, also received national honours in gymnastics.

This environment and also the fact that Casey analysed the sport from an early age are two contributing factors to his rise according to Shannon assistant coach, Pat Brown.

“It was in the genes,” Brown said.

“He was always bred for that. A huge part of that as well is what I talk about when I’m asked about Craig, I see so many similarities between him and Gerry, Brendan Foley and Axel. Because it was the exact same kind of thing. When all the other kids were out playing football on the street, whatever, they were watching videos. They were watching matches.

“It’s so hard to get kids to look at rugby outside of when they are actually involved in it. So, when they are younger, they don’t have the attention span, but Craig would dissect matches with his Dad. He would have grown up around the Shannon dressing rooms the exact same way that Axel did with Brendan.

“Gerry was coaching the Shannon senior team the last time we won the AIL 10 years ago so he would have grown up around the dressing room, he would have been a part of it, he would have been in the dressing room hearing the pre-match speeches, he would have seen the celebrations afterwards and that just all seeped into him. There was no escaping it for him, it was in the genes.”

Casey’s development continued when he entered the doors of Ardscoil Rís on the North Circular Road. The scrum-half represented the Limerick school at Junior Cup in 2015 before playing Senior Cup rugby in 2016 and 2017, captaining the school and reaching the semi-final of the Munster Schools Senior Cup in the latter year.

Brown, who coached Craig during his school years, explains how Casey made an immediate impression on him and his teammates.

“The first time I came across him as a coach would have been Junior Cup at Ardscoil Rís. I’d heard about him before I’d seen him obviously, seeing him play up close and jeez, he just blew us all away. Even from then, he was setting standards. Craig is the kind of guy that when he comes into a room, he wants to be the best and even then, from me looking at him, he set the standards.

Craig Casey playing for Ardscoil Rís during the Munster Schools Senior Cup Semi-Final against Glenstal in 2017

“Obviously, it was with his peers but then when he came into Senior Cup for the first time, he was a year or a year-and-a-half younger than all of the other guys, but he still drove the standards.”

Casey’s development was further enhanced during this time as he was involved in Munster Regional Development Squads. O’Loughlin, who coached Casey in the Munster U18 Schools squad, was able to see first-hand the level of commitment that the scrum-half was putting into his game.

“He would have been involved in our Regional Development Squads for U16, U17 and U18s which we start with Munster rep squads. So he was involved in all that process coming from Ardscoil Rís. I would have first had Craig under me when I was head coach of Munster U18 Schools and Craig was involved in that squad.

“So that was really when I got to see in-depth how he was committed. What he did on the field and off the field. What he wanted to know, how he wanted to develop himself through the skills of the game, through how we played. He was always upskilling himself, always wanting to know more to be ahead of the game. That is a huge trait.”

Craig Casey tackles Ryan Baird during an U18 Interprovincial Final in 2016 ©INPHO

Casey entered the Greencore Munster Rugby Academy straight out of school and this provided the opportunity to represent his club once again at senior level and it was during his AIL debut against Trinity that Brown realised the scrum-half was destined to become a full-time professional.

“I had an inkling when we had him in Junior Cup because what he was doing was just so far ahead of all the other players, not only on his own team but on the opposition. The lines he was running to get to the breakdown, his speed of pass – all of this stuff we worked on.

“He came off the bench in his first AIL match for Shannon against Trinity in Trinity and he ran a line, left everybody for dead and just scooted in under the posts. To have the balls to do it and then the speed to back it up, it was just, ‘oh my god’. It was at that point that I knew he was definitely going to make it. He just came in after being capped by the Irish schools, so he was 18 years of age.”

For Gerry, he would have seen first-hand his son’s development at every step of the journey and he admits it was around the time of the U20 Six Nations in 2019 and the subsequent World Cup in Argentina that he realised his son was set for a successful career in the sport.

“He had dreams of being a professional in all sports. He played everything. The rugby side of it, you kind of get whispers from other coaches and parents when you’re involved. The first thing when he went down to Rockwell for the Schools Camps and Fiach O’Loughlin who’d be a great friend of mine, I actually coached Fiach, kind of gave me feedback like, ‘Oh, he trains brilliantly, he’s this way, he’s far ahead of some other lads.’

“The point that you realise he could make professional is the U20s because that’s the proving ground. So when you see him be able to…he had a great campaign when they won the Grand Slam. But when he went over to the World Cup you see him against the best in the world and being on a par with them and excelling. That’s when you go, ‘God, he really has a chance to go where he wants to go with it.'”

Craig Casey and his father Gerry during the 2019 U20 World Championship in Argentina

To have another home-grown player develop throughout the Munster pathway and reach international honours, it can help inspire future generations. In Casey’s instance, this is already evident as Brown explains the interest among the student population in Ardscoil Rís when the scrum-half pays a visit to his former school.

“It’s always been a struggle for Ardscoil Rís because in recent years they’re competing with the hurling within the school as well.

“So, every time there is a success story with an Ardscoil Rís rugby player, it just drives on the next generation. My middle son is in second year there now but that’s all they want to be, they all want to be Craig Casey.

“When you have kids competing across different codes as well, that bit of success, they see themselves and they go, ‘You know what? That could be me.’ So, for every kid that’s out there that watches that, there’s always the potential, there’s always that dream. And for such a young guy to succeed in the way that he does, it’s all about the work that he does.

“He’s still over in Ardscoil Rís, well he was last year before the lockdown happened. He was still helping out with their Junior, Senior Cup teams. Those kids see him on the pitch. There would always have been first years and second years standing there watching him giving instruction.”

For his family, Gerry explains that seeing Craig run out for the final quarter against Italy to make his Ireland debut means “absolutely everything.”

There have been many firsts in different jerseys in recent times; first caps, first tries, first squad inclusions. Although this signals the beginning of a new chapter, Gerry can still reflect on the cherished memories which led to this point and most importantly how he was able to witness, every step of the way, his son’s rise.

“Looking back, it was just really enjoyable being with him all the time and seeing him develop. Seeing, not only the rugby player he turned into but the person on and off the pitch, you maybe don’t get a chance to see when you’re not involved in sport working with your kids. It was really enjoyable.”

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