"Having one of the best in the world to emulate has been really good"
"It’s something that I’ve really honed in on."
Craig Casey accepted, early on, that he would not be taking that stretch. He knew what he had to work with and he just got on with it.
Peter Stringer, his hero growing up, was often listen at 5-foot-7 and a half. Stringer wasn't letting go of that half an inch. He'd say it with pride.
There must have been a moment, back when Casey was 10 or 11, when he saw Mike Phillips and Conor Murray (both 6-foot-plus) doing so well on a world stage and reckoned he'd be up against it. The likes of Aaron Smith and Faf de Klerk have both come through, since then, to show there is still room in rugby for the little guys.
Casey made his Munster senior debut at 20, in April 2019. He has seven senior caps now and started Munster's last two games before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the rugby season into a long pause. At 5-foot-5 (1.65 metres) he is one of the smallest rugby pros in recent years but a player who is doing all he can to make it at the top.
Coming from a "rugby-mad family", Casey was handy at football until, when he got to U14 level, he opted to go down the rugby route. "Once I picked rugby," he tells us, "it was fairly full-on trying to get that.
"My dad and my uncle [Mossy Lawlor] got me to the gym early enough, just after the first year of Junior Cup. I was pretty well looked after, in the sense that I had Mossy, who is a qualified S&C coach, to guide me along the way, up until I got into the Munster programme. Then they took over with the gym and really helped me, body-wise."
Casey formed a half-back partnership with Ben Healy, starting with Munster U17s and going all the way through the age grades up to senior level. Back in January, the 6-foot-3 Healy made his European debut in the same match as Casey.
Former France scrumhalf Jacques Fouroux was only 5-foot-4 when he led his country to a Grand Slam in 1977. No.9s are often known as 'Le Petit Generals', inspired by Fouroux, but I ask Casey if anothehe ever felt his diminutive stature would hold him back.
"I wouldn’t say, height-wise, that it really bothered me," he says, "but there was this thing when I was going into the academy. I looked up No.9s and what weights they were.
"So I was kind of a bit obsessed with getting to 80kg going into the academy. Then I got injured so I thought this was the perfect chance to do this. So I tried to put in a bit of work, gym-wise, and I got to 82kgs at one stage. I just couldn’t move, really. I’d just got back running and 82kgs. It didn’t suit me at all.
"It made me realise at all that the weight doesn’t really matter. I’m strong in the gym at 74kg and I’m not going to be picked for my physicality. I’m not going to be picked because I’m heavier. So it hasn’t really stressed me since. I’m picked to fizz around the pitch and get about the place. That’s my game and I don’t need to be larger than I should be."
Another element of his game that Casey has been using the lockdown period to work on has been his passing. The U20 Six Nations, last year, gave many Irish fans their first glimpse of the Limerick native's lightning quick passing, off both hands.
Former Munster star Barry Murphy remarked on House of Rugby, last year, that Casey may well be the quickest passer of a ball in Europe right now.
"It’s what I feel is the best part of my game and it’s probably the biggest part of the scrumhalf’s game, in general," says Casey.
"You have to be a good passer. Again, working with my father and Mossy, growing up, and being around the Shannon senior teams, I was always practising my passing.
"It’s something that I’ve really honed in on. In lockdown especially, it’s been good to get six passing sessions a week in. I’d be able to get in a lot of reps. I’d be aiming for 2,500 reps a week in lockdown. It’s something I’d do in game-week, as well, but to a lesser extent because you are getting those reps in training. It’s definitely the most thing I work on, as it’s my point of difference, but you’ve got to work on other things as well. Box-kicking as well, so it’s a fine balance."
Munster felt suitably confident in Casey's potential that they moved James Hart, Jack Stafford and Alby Mathewson on in the past 12 months. Nick McCarthy arrived from Leinster, last summer, but Casey will be pushing hard to deputise for Conor Murray when rugby resumes in August.
The Munster, Ireland and Lions scrumhalf is a great mentor to have, says Casey.
"Any question I would have, I can ask Conor and he’ll answer it for me. For someone like me, I’m always trying to work on my box-kicking and who better to learn off than Conor Murray? He’s the best in the world at it. Anything I can pick up from him… even just watching his training habits.
"It’s not just Conor. I learn a lot of stuff from all the 9s. We’re always bouncing ideas off each other and we have a group chat that we talk in, along with Greg Oliver as well. It’s good to have Neil (Cronin), Nick and Conor there to bounce ideas off.
"When I was coming up through the academy, Jack Stafford was there. He’s a really good trainer and ultra-competitive. Just to go head-to-head in a friendly relationship and go against each other, in a friendly way, for gym scores and everything was great. It really drove me one. Now, going into the senior team and having one of the best in the world there, and to emulate, has been really good."
"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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