Wednesday 23 October 2019

Young No 9 is ready for a step up in class to play for seniors

Friday Focus: Craig Casey

Craig Casey in action for Munster during the pre-season friendly against London Irish last month
Craig Casey in action for Munster during the pre-season friendly against London Irish last month

Mirroring himself on Aaron Smith and Faf de Klerk, Munster scrum-half Craig Casey still has plenty to learn before he can put himself in a world class bracket, but he's on the right path.

His first challenge is to nail down some regular game time in his first year as part of the Munster senior ranks.

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Craig Casey in action for Munster during the U-18 Schools Interprovincial Series in 2015 against Leinster. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Craig Casey in action for Munster during the U-18 Schools Interprovincial Series in 2015 against Leinster. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Casey will surely hope to replicate Fineen Wycherley, the 2017-18 academy player of the year. Wycherley made 16 appearances for the first team last season.

Meanwhile, Casey made his own name in the academy and after two years there he earned a professional contract with Johann van Graan's side.

He ended up being crowned the academy player of the year and is now desperate to continue a steady rise.

"I was delighted (when I got the contract)," said Casey.

"It is something I dreamed of since I was four when I was the mascot in Thomond Park with Axel (Anthony Foley). It was a dream come true really.

"I am looking to make the most of it over the next few years and hopefully drive on."

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Casey is a famous name in the rugby annals around Limerick, and his family are steeped in the game.

Craig's father Ger was part of the Shannon RFC coaching team that masterminded an All-Ireland League triumph in 2009, while his uncle is former Munster winger Mossy Lawler.

"My dad coached me since U-4 right up until Senior Cup. To have him right there and giving me tips has been very helpful," said Casey.

Casey's undoubted talent blossomed from an early age and he came through Ardscoil Rís where he got noticed on the national scene.

He represented Ireland at schools level and at U-20, which included a sensational 2019 in green.

In his second year of the Munster academy, Casey was installed as vice-captain of the Ireland U-20 side that went on to claim the Six Nations Grand Slam.

They had massive expectations going to Argentina for the World Rugby Junior Championships but that fell short on the back of bad luck and injuries.

Nevertheless, a player who had missed 14 months of his early academy career through injury was now very much on the radar of Van Graan and the rest of the Munster coaching team.

Casey had even made his first appearance for Munster before he embarked on the long trip to Argentina.

He came on in latter stages of a hard-fought 27-14 victory over Connacht at Thomond Park last April.

"I wasn't expecting it on the day, I was only travelling as reserve," he said.

"I prepped all week like it was going to happen, so when it happened I was ready to go on.

"It was unbelievable really, something you dream of since you were a kid, especially growing up with my uncle playing for them.

"And then being a mascot. That day running out was class but all of the lads were really helpful, so it made it even better."

Smith and de Klerk are two players that Casey admires because of their combative styles and diminutive statures, but there are some inspirational figures much closer to home.

Conor Murray is currently away, starring for Ireland in the Rugby World Cup, and he has been another massive influence for Casey.

Who better to build your game around, than a British & Irish Lions No 9, while the other Munster scrum-halves have also imparted their own advice.

"I try to take parts from all of the top-class nines," said Casey.

"You have got Conor Murray, Alby Mathewson, and then working with all of the lads inside. You take their good parts and try and learn from them.

"Then you have got Aaron Smith, Faf de Klerk, two small nines that I definitely like to play like.

"Last year I was away a lot with the U-20s, so I wasn't in and around, but any time I came back and had questions to ask him, Conor Murray was very helpful answering them.

"I have done a few passing sessions with him and all of the nines. Just looking at what he is like on the pitch and what he is like off the pitch, it is something to strive for.

"You want to be that good in the future."

And Casey has certainly shown he can be that good. Indeed, he won't let his small frame - which measures in at under 5ft6 - hold him back either.

"Growing up I always had to work on my technique more than others because I wasn't running through people at underage," said Casey.

"I had to be able to tackle low. My main focus is tackling low. I wouldn't be picked on my size anyway.

"It is about zipping around the pitch and getting the ball quickly."

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