"As a team, we’re ready to take a trophy home now" - Craig Casey
"I would say that I’m a bit of a rugby nerd, in fairness."
Craig Casey has been using his time at home - with his mum, dad and sister - over these past few months to put together some playlists.
For a guy who started playing rugby with Shannon at the age of four, it should probably be no surprise to learn the playlists are of his favourite scrum-halves.
"I’d follow all the top 9s," the Munster scrumhalf tells SportsJOE. "Even to this day, in lockdown now, I’ve got to study 10 of them and make playlists of what I want to take through.
"The likes of Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Conor Murray, John Cooney, Antoine Dupont, all them. Bryan Hall, Brad Webber, the whole lot. I’ve got to study all of them and take what I want to take out of their game to make me a better player.
"But also taking what I’m good at and taking that forward as well... I’ve been watching rugby closely since I was 14 and studying players, which has definitely helped along the way – taking little knicks and knacks from the players that do well."
Last Monday, Casey went back training with the Munster senior squad and got to meet a couple of his new teammates, Roman Salonoa (signed from Leinster) and World Cup winner RG Snyman. "They’re ready to go as well," he notes.
From the end of December until the end of February, Casey won five of the seven senior caps he has to date. When rugby returns, he wants to add to that and add to that again. And he wants a Guinness PRO14 title. He is raring to go.
For Casey, rugby is simply a way of life. He has friends and interests outside the sphere so rugby is not all-consuming. It is consuming, though. He wouldn't have it any other way.
There is a famous photo of Craig, when he was six, back in September 2005 at Thomond Park. With his blonde hair spiked up and a rugby ball as big as his torso, he stands proudly beside a crouching Anthony Foley. The Munster captain posing with another star-struck Limerick lad before a league game.
"The earliest memory, at a game, that I’d really have would being mascot and running out with Anthony Foley, and meeting all of the lads in the tunnel. I have vivid memories of the Miracle Match (in 2003) but I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been shown the videos, going back, because Mossy scored a try. That’s probably the earliest memory I have, but I definitely been around the team and I remember the Heineken Cup coming into a pub that our family used to go to, and getting to hold it. It was out the back of my house, as well, because Mossy had it. Meeting a few of them (players) with the Heineken Cup – and I have photos – it was pretty cool, growing up."
The 'Mossy' that Casey speaks of his Mossy Lawlor, his uncle, who was part of the Munster squads when they won the Heineken Cup in 2006 and 2008. Those Munster heroes being in his back garden is a memory that still gives Casey pause, before he smiles and moves on. Reassuring himself that it was all real.
The match-worn jersey of Peter Stringer's was real too. He received that one as a communion gift and it is still cherished to this day. Casey wanted to be a scrumhalf back then and that gift only steeled him further.
"It is a pretty rugby-mad family," says Craig of the Caseys. "My father, Ger, coached. He was pretty good at soccer, as well, and pretty good at rugby but injuries got the better of him. I think he broke his neck – broke a bone in his neck – when he was younger so that kind of ended him. I think he played Munster ‘A’ as his highest level. And then my uncle obviously played for Munster and Ireland ‘A’, so I’d say it’s definitely the biggest sports in the family.
"My mother, Sinead, represented Ireland in gymnastics and she was the first one to wear the green in the family as well, and she lets us know that! My sister, Amy, has won around 20 All-Ireland titles in gymnastics as well."
Ger was his coach at Shannon when he started playing minis. He stayed with Shannon until he went to Ardscoil Rís for secondary school. "Not much success, now," he says as he recalls his two years of Junior Cup and two years of Senior, "but good experiences and a lot of good players played with. I had a half-back partnership with Conor Fitzgerald in Fifth Year. It’s quite cool to see him doing so well up in Connacht now."
Ger and Mossy were Craig's mentors away from Ardscoil Rís and he would have gone through strength and conditioning sessions under their guidance until he went into the Munster underage system. Playing for Munster U18 against Leinster at Thomond Park, in August 2016, was dream come true and a sign he was on the right path.
Just a couple of months later, Casey was back at the ground as a grieving Munster fan as the province and its supporters gave Anthony Foley a rousing send-off following his shock death on the weekend of a Champions Cup game in Paris.
"It was definitely really, really sad and quite an emotional time for everyone involved in Munster and in Shannon and, obviously, for everyone that knew him. I remember being at that Glasgow game as well and it was absolutely ridiculous – the whole stadium going quiet for the lads to sing Stand Up And Fight in the middle. It just goes to show what Munster fans are about and how much he meant to everyone in Munster."
"You can see the strong characters that went through that in the Munster squad and how that has stood to them," he adds. "We were very close to him, too, so it was a very hard one."
For Casey, the rugby journey continued. He recalls a trip to Wales with Ireland U18s when he was given the captaincy of a talented bunch of young men.
"A good crop of the [future Ireland U20s] group were over in Wales and it was a really good 11 days over in Wales. And I remember, in the game against Wales, we were around 19 points down and ended up winning by two. I remember thinking, ‘Jeez, this is a really talented group and hopefully I get to keep playing with them’.
"Unfortunately, I was injured for Under 19s so I missed out on that and I missed out on an Under 20 season as well. But I was able to come back the next year and come back into the Under 20s. It was just seamless, really. Everyone really got on. There was no real divide between provinces like there usually is because we had all come up through 18s, 19s and 20s.
"When it came to that  Six Nations, we were all really close. That was probably the main thing because we knew we were a talented group. Being so close and being best mates, we knew it was going to take a really good team to beat us and, thankfully, no one did!"
Ireland won the Grand Slam that season but fell short at the World Rugby U20s Championship that summer when injuries and stringent refereeing combined to take its' toll. By that stage, Casey had already played his first senior game for Munster.
"My debut was a bit of a weird one," Casey recalls. "I’d just come back from a knee injury in the Six Nations and I was 24th man for the Connacht game in Thomond Park.
"So it was only my mother and father that I had to get tickets for, but I had a few cousins in the stand as they are Munster-mad in general. They were there to see Munster, they weren’t so much there to see me! I had a few cousins and uncles that were there.
"Then Conor Murray went down really, really late on in the warm-up. I had prepped all week like I was making my debut and when it came it was unbelievable. I got on for five minutes at the end of the game. It was great to get the first one."
Had you caught any of Ireland U20s' games, last year, or the Munster outings he has had so far, you should have heard Casey barking at his teammates and setting up plays - the epitome of Le Petit General.
"I’d say it’s come naturally. I’m very, very competitive. Growing up, I was very competitive. It’s probably come from that. Now, it’s probably about how to channel it in a positive way, on the pitch, rather than just roaring and shouting. Then it’s going to be noise for the other players. It’s finding out where to do it, in the right place and where you need to do it, even in terms of positive feedback. It’s been a bit of a mix and match."
His second senior outing came against Ospreys when Conor Murray was off on World Cup duty. Johann Van Graan and the Munster coaching staff clearly like what they see, though, as Alby Mathewson's contract was not extended (again) and more games followed. Casey started the 19-14 victory over Connacht, last December, before getting a double dose of Champions Cup experience. He came on for Murray late in an away loss to Racing 92 but, a week later, had a better time of it back in Limerick.
"It was disappointing that we were out but for 20,000 people to show up for [the Ospreys] game that didn’t mean anything, in terms of getting to the quarter finals, was absolutely unreal. To get that first taste was class.
"For the five lads that got their European debut, I’d say it was pretty class. Like, me, Ben Healy and Josser – Jack O’Sullivan – all came off the bench. I’ve played with Ben the whole way up from Munster 17s and to come on and play with him in a European Cup game is the stuff that dreams are made of, really. And obviously, with Fineen Wycherley and Calvin Nash doing so well that day, they both played really, really well. It was class to see, there was definitely excitement around us and we got to play the game we wanted."
Right before the 2019/20 season was paused - due to the Covid-19 pandemic - Casey had started in the No.9 jersey for emphatic wins over Zebre and Scarlets.
He looks around the Munster set-up right now and sees 'a good crop of young lads coming up' to join the likes of Salanoa, Snyman, Damian De Allende and established stars like Murray, CJ Stander, Keith Earls and Peter O'Mahony.
"There’s a lot of us that won the Grand Slam, last year, and there’s a good few underneath us that have played Under 20s this year. Tom Ahern and Jack Crowley have made a real impression on the Six Nations and they’re really good players as well. And then you’ve got the likes of Gavin Coombes, Liam Coombes, Fineen and Calvin. There is a good crop of young lads and training is very, very competitive."
"I think our goal really stays the same," says Casey. "To win the PRO14.
"I don’t think we’ll be happy with anything other than that, for the foreseeable future. It’s a short-term goal, obviously, because we’ll then be going straight into a new season.
"As a team, we’re ready to take a trophy home now. It’s been a while and we are an ambitious group. It hurts that we haven’t won a trophy in a while but it has been coming and we won’t be happy unless we win it this year."
"The Heineken Cup was out the back of my house, as well, because Mossy had it" 🏆
From @Munsterrugby mascot, aged 5, to scrumhalf in the senior squad, @CraigCasey9 really is living the dream 🔴 pic.twitter.com/KCfAUL7F6s
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) June 22, 2020
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