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27th Feb 2021

Sexton compares “brilliant” Irish debutant Craig Casey to Jonny Wilkinson

Patrick McCarry

Craig Casey

“Everything I’ve dreamt of. It makes it a lot better to get the win. So I’m delighted.”

Back in July, as Ireland’s rugby players readied themselves to return from an elongated, pandemic-enforced break, Craig Casey spoke with SportsJOE about the months ahead.

The Limerick native had made his first ever European appearance earlier in 2020, before the season was postponed, and most of his ambitions revolved around helping his home province end a long [10-year] wait to win silverware.

An Irish breakthrough was on the agenda, but Casey wanted to make a name for himself with Munster first. Eight months on and he has certainly excelled for Munster. There was not silverware, last September, but he was fast-tracked to the Ireland squad.

The 21-year-old was denied a debut, off the bench, against France, a fortnight ago, but he says he knew he would be getting his chance when Will Connors’ second try against Italy settled that contest. He thought he had a try assist, too, but the TMO ruled his pass to James Lowe had been marginally forward.

Following Ireland’s 48-10 victory, in Rome, Johnny Sexton was asked about the young Irish debutants – Casey and Ryan Baird. He gushed:

“We have come in for some flak over the last few weeks but internally as a group I don’t think we have ever been more confident about where we are going and what we can produce. I mean that properly. With the coaches that we have and the leadership group coming out of their shells, this group is on the right trajectory. I properly believe that.

“Those two guys are going to play a huge part in that. Just their character. Like, Craig Casey, I didn’t know him that well obviously – I had never played with him – but his attitude is .. I don’t think I have ever come across anyone.

“It kind of reminds me what I read about Jonny Wilkinson – that is the only person I can relate him to. It is inspiring for the rest of the group and for someone like me, at this stage in my career, I like to be last off the pitch and I am never last off the pitch with him around. He has been brilliant.

“And Ryan was outstanding when he came on. He brought some energy, he is an incredible athlete.”

Craig Casey and Ryan Baird after their Ireland debuts against Italy. (Credit: Sportsfile)

About 20 minutes after Sexton had compared him to one of England (and world rugby’s greatest ever players, Casey emerged from the showers to reflect on his debut. On those Sexton comments, the Shannon clubman said:

“He said this to me a few weeks ago. I think it’s to do with obsessiveness with rugby. I’ll take that compliment, yeah. Being compared to Jonny Wilkinson, I’ll definitely take that.”

After speaking highly of the scrum-halves he is competing for the Ireland No.9 jersey, Casey said he was expecting another avalanche of texts and messages after the game.

“The phone was buzzing, especially in the France week I got a hell of a lot of texts. I had to turn the phone off until after the game, so I had to go back through the messages after not playing. That was a bit awkward.

“Everyone from Shannon’s been on to me. Peter Stringer text me before the France game, so that was cool. Everyone’s so supportive.

“Peter just said, ‘Best of luck and be yourself, don’t try and do anything out of the ordinary’.”

Having grown up in and around the Munster squad – his uncle is ‘Mossy’ Lawlor – and been a mascot for his province, Casey has stag’s blood running through his veins.

Laughing when he heard how Shannon and Munster legend Alan Quinlan was commenting on how he held a young casey in his arms, years ago, he remarked, “There’s been a photo going around of Stringer holding me as well… hopefully they don’t keep flooding out now!”

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