Munster scrum half Craig Casey will captain an Ireland ‘A’ team on Friday that has an average age of 24, as they entertain the All Blacks XV under the RDS floodlights.
Casey is one of twelve players involved who lined out against the Māori All Blacks in the summer, while fit-again Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale is back in green for the first time since the 2021 Vodafone Summer Series.
The inaugural All Blacks XV, selected by head coach Leon MacDonald, includes eight capped players with Damian McKenzie partnering vice-captain TJ Perenara at half-back, and Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu skippering the side.
Casey first trained with the Ireland squad two years, making his debut against Italy at the start of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations. Head coach Andy Farrell felt the 23-year-old was the perfect fit for the captain’s role.
“He was an obvious choice for us. We approached the subject straight away and it was unanimous that it was going to be Craig. Why? Because it’s him just being himself. He’s a natural leader,” said Farrell.
“Just the way that he handles himself on a daily basis in and around everyone. He’s the ultimate professional, he prepares really well.
“He’s been in and around this (Ireland) environment for some time now so the responsibility is a nice step in his journey as well.”
The Limerick youngster is no stranger to captaining teams, having done so during his school days at Ardscoil Rís and also been captain of the Ireland Under-18 Schools team.
He enhanced his leadership skills as vice-captain of the Ireland Under-20s for their U-20 Six Nations Grand Slam-winning campaign in 2019, as well as that summer’s World Rugby U-20 Championship.
Revealing how he found out about his captaincy of Ireland ‘A’, he said: “It happened on Monday morning just before the team was named. Andy just pulled me aside for a normal chat that we would have and he just asked me then.
I was absolutely delighted. Massive honour for me, for my family, for everyone that’s helped me to this point. It’s a huge honour for them as well.
“I was delighted. It’s such a great team to be a part of and to be asked to lead it is a great honour.”
Casey has become an important figure in the Munster squad, recently making his 50th appearance for the province on the back of signing a three-year contract extension.
The Ireland ‘A’ panel has quickly come together as a galvanised unit this week, clearly relishing this opportunity to take on a talented New Zealand outfit on home soil and put their hands up for involvement in next week’s Fiji Test.
Ireland ‘A’ last played as the Ireland Wolfhounds against England Saxons in January 2015 when Felix Jones was skipper and Casey’s current Munster team-mate, Keith Earls, lined out at outside centre.
“All my teams growing up in Ardscoil I was the captain of, and then with the Irish 18s I had a bit of captaincy. So I’m well used to captaining teams, but this is obviously to the next level.
“Kind of controlling the week with lads that are part of the leadership group as well has been enjoyable,” said the Shannon clubman, who has made three starts for Munster so far this season.
The ‘A’ matchday squad contains seven players who were part of the successful Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa. Amongst them are Casey’s provincial colleagues, Diarmuid Barron, Jack Crowley and Calvin Nash.
Ireland head coach Farrell is pleased to see the return of Ireland ‘A’ fixtures which, along with the Emerging Ireland tour, give players exposure to the international environment and a chance to press for a senior call-up.
“I think the more opportunity the better it’s going to be for Irish Rugby. A lot of things have to be in place for this kind of thing to continue to happen,” noted Farrell.
“To give lads an opportunity to show their growth, and what normally happens when they come into a different environment, they learn from each other, they go back to their provinces and their own personal development improves as well.
“So that can only be a good thing that we need to look at. But, if we look at the here and now, the continuity from the Māori game to this, and then the lads coming in now to play against the All Blacks XV, is a massive step up.
“And the right direction of a step up. We’ve seen some people thrive on the Emerging Ireland tour, and then they come into camp and see what the expectation is when they see the senior boys flying around in training, etc.
“It can only be a good thing for them, and they get to show their worth at a different level against what is going to be a very strong New Zealand side on Friday night.”
The addition of the Ireland ‘A’ match has certainly added to the coaching workload but Farrell would have it no other way. He wants the players to thrive under pressure, both in training against the senior side and in the heat of battle against an elite New Zealand selection.
On managing the preparations for back-to-back games, he admitted: “It’s been fantastic, it’s been great. It’s been different and I like it being different. I don’t like people just going through the motions and just ticking boxes as far as schedules are concerned, etc.
“We’ve had two teams going against each other (in training) which we don’t normally get. We normally get lads going against each other who know exactly what’s going on.
“So the vibe in and around the place has been perfect for us moving forward. It has been a great experience for everyone.
“Nice to have everyone in the room and to acknowledge where everyone’s at and see who is coming in, that’s very exciting for us all to be part of.
“You can see from a lot of those lads coming back from the Emerging Ireland tour, they understand what it takes. Delivering that on a different level is their next step on the ladder and it’s going to be very interesting on Friday night.”