Monday 19 August 2019

Munster is in the blood for rising U-20s star Casey

Anthony Foley with mascot Craig Casey at Thomond Park in 2005. Photo: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
Anthony Foley with mascot Craig Casey at Thomond Park in 2005. Photo: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Craig Casey is barely old enough to remember the 'old' Thomond Park, but his earliest memories of the famous Limerick stadium are more special than most other people's.

To understand what Munster Rugby means to the Ireland U-20s scrum-half, it's important to provide some background to his story.

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Casey's family is steeped in Munster and Limerick rugby history, particularly Shannon RFC with whom his dad Ger coached to an All-Ireland League title in 2009, while his uncle Mossy Lawler enjoyed a successful career with Shannon and Munster.

Growing up in Limerick, Lawler was a huge inspiration for a young Casey, who always dreamed of following in his uncle's footsteps.

You can imagine his elation then when Lawler, who played for Munster for seven years, pulled a few strings and got his then six-year-old nephew to be the mascot for the opening day of the 2005-06 Celtic League season when Border Reivers arrived in Thomond Park.

Munster's captain that evening was the late Anthony Foley and as Casey got the chance to run out alongside one of the province's all-time greats, it stirred something inside him.

So, when Leinster came calling recently and attempted to lure Casey to Dublin, the odds of the move happening were always slim, and instead he signed a development deal with Munster, before moving on to a senior contract.

"Yeah, look, I was shocked it was all happening," Casey admits.

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"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.

"Once that (Munster contract) was there, I was going to sign that. There was no second-guessing myself, I was straight. I'm delighted to have signed it."

On the back of playing a central role in the Ireland U-20s' Grand Slam success, Casey returned to Munster, where he is highly rated by Johann van Graan.

He impressed enough to earn his professional debut against Connacht at the end of April, and playing at Thomond Park for his boyhood club brought the memories of that day he was mascot flooding back.

"I remember the old Thomond Park obviously, I think I was six at the time," Casey recalls. "It was class. 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."

It was a special day for the Casey family. Such was the last-minute nature of his call-up after Conor Murray went down in the warm-up, most relations scrambled to find a television, while his granny wouldn't have missed it for the world and had to blag her way into the stadium.

"My grandmother heard I was warming up and she ran up the road and forced her way into Thomond Park," Casey laughs.

"She actually only arrived for the last 10 minutes. My parents were there. I'd say my mother was probably the most nervous woman in the stadium, but she had my father there to calm her down."

For now, the focus is very much on Ireland as the U-20s prepare for their World Cup opener against England in Argentina on Tuesday in a tournament that should enhance his rapidly-growing reputation.

"I think we've parked the Grand Slam win," Casey adds. "Obviously it's very hard to park it, but I think it's something that straight away we said, 'Yeah, look, we've won the Grand Slam, but we want to go on and win the World Cup'.

"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.

"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."

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