As one of 12 Munster players in the extended Ireland Under-20 Six Nations squad, Craig Casey is understandably fired up for Friday’s first round match against England at Irish Independent Park.
Currently developing his game in All-Ireland League Division 1A with Shannon, the livewire scrum half hopes the switch from Dublin to Cork for the U-20 international home games becomes more than a temporary arrangement.
Starting at half-back tomorrow alongside Harry Byrne and with a vice-captain role, Casey said: “It’s a massive honour to be involved. It’s a very exciting squad. We’ve talked about that (the game being in Cork) between the leadership group. Not just for the Munster lads, for the Irish U-20 lads.
“It’s now our home and we’re the only international side to play in Cork (this year). I suppose if we do it well, hopefully we’ll get a big massive crowd out for us and build on it for years to come.”
The Limerick youngster, who previously captained the Ireland U-18 Schools team, spent time in the Ireland U-20 set-up last season before a series of injuries halted his progress. Unfortunately he had to spend more than a year on the sidelines due to a host of aggravating issues, but he maintained a philosophical outlook during his absence from the game.
Casey explained: “I was actually out for 14 months. I’ve had three surgeries. First one started with a knee one. I got injured in a warm-up against Leinster, but I didn’t realise how serious it was. I played that full game with the injury and obviously, that made it a lot worse. So I got the surgery at the start of the summer. It was a meniscus.
“Wasn’t too serious, but then I had an in-grown hair on my lower back, so I had to get that removed and that scar. Working with the knee rehab, it didn’t really help each other. That kind of set them both back for about eight months together. When I finally got back on the pitch, I did two weeks of pre-season and I tore the meniscus in my right knee.
“Left knee first and then the right knee the second time. I missed about seven weeks of pre-season and only got back, I think it was the end of October. Frustrating enough. Obviously, I was in the loop last year for all of this, being in the (Under-20) camps and stuff like that. I think you just deal with it. Injuries happen.”
Now that his injury woes are behind him, Casey is ready to take on greater responsibility in the Noel McNamara-coached Ireland Under-20 squad. Alongside newly-appointed captain David Hawkshaw, the promising half-back will share vice-captain duties with UCD second row Charlie Ryan.
As well as captaining the Ireland Schools side, Casey can also draw on his experience as captain of Ardscoil Ris whom he led to a Munster Schools Senior Cup semi-final in 2017. The Munster Academy starlet believes the Ireland U-20s will not solely rely on the leadership group for some on-field inspiration.
“I was captain of Ardscoil. I suppose there’s a lot of leaders in the group who are not even in the leadership group. A lot of the lads have captained their schools and stuff like that. I think the leadership group will kinda work with the players more than as a hierarchy. There’s a lot of lads that are leaders and I think they’ll help each other.”
Given his strong family ties to the club, Casey’s progression into the Shannon senior ranks is not entirely surprising. His father Ger was part of the coaching staff for Shannon’s last All-Ireland League top flight title win in 2009, while his uncle is former Munster utility back Mossy Lawler, who is now an Elite Player Development Officer and Academy coach with Connacht.
The rigours of Division 1A rugby has proven to be a steep learning curve for Casey, but he is not alone in this regard. Fellow Ireland U-20 squad members Luke Masters and Jake Flannery also line out for Shannon, last year’s Division 1B champions, and Flannery, in particular, is already making a strong impression on the league’s top tier.
“Jake is an awesome player. He’s playing at full-back at the minute for us (Ireland). He’s been playing at 10 for Shannon and he’s played at 15. He’s cool, calm and collected but he has that extra something special I suppose about him. He’s a hard worker as well. I’m with him day in, day out. He’s non-stop work,” said Casey.
“It’s a step up (playing in the top division of the AIL). It’s something I’ve been dreaming of since I was four. I’ve always been around the squad. I’ve always kinda been in and around Shannon set-ups. To play for them, it’s massive. It’s a step up in games, so you’re ready for this sort of rugby.”
Even though he readily accepts the developmental aspect to the Under-20 Six Nations Championship, Casey has high aspirations ahead of Friday’s highly-anticipated showdown with England on Leeside.
“It’s a development window but the ultimate goal is to win it. England are pretty stacked in the first game and that’s going to be a learning curve for us and hopefully we’ll get the win in that game. It’s just good to be playing against players of that quality,” he added.