Craig Casey’s chance to shine latest chapter in heart-warming story of resilience – The Irish Times

There is an opportunity for a group of Irish players at the Stadio Olimpico this afternoon, most obviously the half-dozen players promoted from the bench to the starting XI. And that’s truer for no one than Craig Casey.

The 23-year-old from Limerick made his Ireland debut two years ago, playing the final 12 minutes of the match at the same stadium. That took place behind closed doors, and so did the dressing room celebrations after the game, when he was caught on video camera belting out George Michael’s Careless Whisper, to the delight of his teammates, famous or notorious depending on your musical tastes, and wowing fans inside the social media.

Two years later, Casey might have felt more opportunities had opened up since then, but he has only started one game in the meantime, in a summer friendly against Japan the following July.

His only subsequent appearance in the Six Nations up until this season was again against Italy, in last season’s third round win at the Aviva Stadium. But now, having seen Ireland’s last four wins over Fiji, Australia, Wales and France, the latter in the last 24 minutes, Casey is making his first Six Nations start.

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Additionally, of course, Ireland’s depth chart at Scrumhalf is such that outside of Saturday’s Day 23 there are four other scrumhalves capped, namely Caolin Blade (who is again one of the additional players providing cover on Saturday), John Cooney, Kieran Marmion and the consistently impressive Luke McGrath in an all-conquering Leinster side. Paddy Patterson has also attracted attention this season with his pace to the point of collapse and his footballing talent for Munster.

With that in mind, the pressure is on Casey to perform well today, or rather, to perform well by not paying too much attention to the personal bets.

Casey always seemed destined to break into the Ireland squad since his star career, as he played in three of Ireland’s 2019 U20 Six Nations games, scoring tries in two of them. It was Ireland’s first Grand Slam at this level in a dozen years and Casey’s speed to the point of collapse, razor-sharp passing and run threat were particularly symbolic of this team’s success, and perhaps more than anything, so was his ready smile and his clear pleasure in what he has done.

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No less than Cheslin Kolbe and Faf de Klerk, favorites of the Springboks’ world champion team, as well as new Italian sensation Ange Capuozzo, Casey’s popularity with teammates and spectators undoubtedly stems from his small footprint and size.

His bubbly and bubbly personality also endears him to fans, as evidenced by the rise in decibel levels when he is introduced off the bench at Thomond Park.

There’s no doubt he can play a bit on the gallery; facing the crowd and punching the air after a try submission, or forever rushing to the penalty mark and pretending to take a quick tap, or even taking a quick tap off the wrong mark and skating untouched into the paint space area in a try that is never awarded .

There was a hilarious moment in the final two minutes of Leinster’s win at Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day as the visitors ticked down the clock by cornering. The Munster pack caused a turnover from the resulting maul and Casey turned to face the crowd, raising both fists and roaring with delight. Jordan Larmour walked up to him and put his hand on Casey’s shoulder as if to say, “Good luck for the 95 yards on the court.”

But Casey’s career has also been a heartwarming tale of resilience. Casey, who helped Ard Scoil Ris to the semi-finals of the Munster Schools Senior Cup and was promoted to the provincial academy on foot for playing for Ireland Under-18s, saw Casey cruelly sidelined for 14 months in the early stages of his career.

First he underwent knee surgery, then he underwent a procedure to remove an ingrown hair on his back before tearing the meniscus in his other knee in preparation for Munster. To bounce back and become such an integral part of the Ireland Under-20 team at both the Six Nations and the 2019 World Cup was an even greater achievement.

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Above all, Casey is a welcome antidote in a game populated by giants that places so much emphasis on physicality, or ironically in the case of the Springboks, who join de Klerk, Kolbe and Cauozzo in beating opponents into submission.

In fact, at just 5’4″ (1.65m) and 12 stone (76kg), Casey is smaller and lighter than any other trio. Despite his undeniable bravery and willingness to put his physique on the line, that physique certainly works against him, especially on the fringes where Murray’s strength is often taken for granted and even Gibson-Park, who is just 4kg heavier, shines make light of its, well, lightness.

Even putting Casey down the wing has been exploited by alert opponents, notably the All Blacks XV who dismantled Ireland’s senior team in the RDS and Toulouse in the Champions Cup last November.

Like it or not, box-kicking is one of the most important attributes of modern scrumhalf, and that aspect of Casey’s game has definitely improved over the past year or so. But his difference is that speed to collapse, where his low center of gravity is an advantage, and his passing. Like Ireland, Munster are now more aspiring than ever to play a game at a fast pace and Casey fits that ambition. Whether in the starting XI or coming off the bench, he can be a real weapon.

Of course, the eye for the try line is also a weapon he must bring to the table. But he has to be choosier than most because when he’s entangled, the result can look worse due to his size. And, perhaps wrongly, you sense there’s an excitable gamer in this lovable, bubbly personality.

Even leading up to his try assist in Cardiff, when Josh van der Flier sealed the bonus point, Casey could be seen throwing a few small glances before having a dummy and dart of his own two stages earlier in what was almost a turnover would have led . Similarly, against France, there was an ill-advised snipe on the blind side as Ireland turned the tide in the last 10 minutes, which could also have resulted in a turnover.

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You could feel Andy Farrell alluding to all of this as he talked about what he likes about Casey’s game and what the scrumhalf needs to do in his first Six Nations start today.

“He always has energy, but it’s much more than that. He’s worked extremely hard to play fast, be dynamic but be calm enough to make the right decisions when he gets there. I suppose as a youngster you want to show your energy and how fit and skillful you are because his passing has always been fantastic you know but his decision making to not lose the pace of the game is difficult because you have to keep it in your head staying calm and still having the speed in his feet to manage the two is tricky and he is doing very well in that regard.”

What makes Casey’s selection particularly intriguing is the fact that he also has Ross Byrne making his first championship start at 27, having covered an increasingly patient stretch. The pair have completed their last three wins together, but this is their first start in tandem.

“I expect that early in the game, like we’ve started in the last so many games, they bring some clarity to what we’re striving for and then they’re responsible for getting the team onto the field and let them make the right decisions to be able to do this,” said Farrell.

“But what was impressive for them after they came on is that they saw the game, got a feel for the game and understood how to control what they wanted to achieve.

“A little different dynamic for them when they start the game but we expect the control they had. It was right at the right moment and we expect that to be the case from the start of the game.

“We obviously want to bring our game to Italy and they will be at the forefront of that.”

Again, Farrell will be the most intrigued observer of them all. It should always be interesting.


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