Craig Casey fulfilling childhood dream in ‘rugby-mad’ New Zealand

‘It’s been 10 years since we have been down here, I was actually in about sixth class watching those Tests’

Not only are there 21 players among the 40-man Irish squad currently in New Zealand for whom this five-match tour is their first at Test level, but for all bar eight of them this is a first expedition to the foremost rugby power on the planet.

For players such as the 23-year-old Craig Casey touring the land of the long white cloud is the fulfilment of a childhood dream.

“It’s massive. It’s something you dream of when you’re younger. I remember watching the Lions Series in 2005 and you want to be down in New Zealand playing the Maori All Blacks.

“It’s class, you just see how much it means to New Zealand people. Even walking around the streets here, I knew rugby was absolutely massive and coming down I was intrigued by that and wanted to learn a bit more about it.

“But when you are walking down the street and everyone is stopping you wishing you well and saying ‘We are glad that you’re here for the Tests’ — you see how rugby-mad the country is. It’s class, it’s exactly where you want to be as a rugby player.”

Jono Gibbes led the Maoris from the front in trademark style in that 19-13 win over the Lions in June 2005 in the same FMG Stadium in Hamilton where Casey and co will face them next Wednesday (kick-off 7.05pm local time/8.05am Irish). The introduction of Carlos Spencer at half-time transformed the match, his pace off the mark from directly behind the scrum keeping the Lions’ defence guessing and creating the decisive try by current Blues’ head coach Leon McDonald.

“I was only six but it’s probably my earliest international rugby memory — watching the Lions against the All Blacks and Maori All Blacks. It’s definitely intense and obviously not what the Lions wanted, but hopefully we can change that this year.”

Although he admitted to being “absolutely wasted” by the jet lag arising from the longest trip of his life, Casey was his ebullient self.

“Obviously it has been 10 years since we have been down here, I was actually in about sixth class watching those Tests. Other than the World Cup, it’s probably the pinnacle of international rugby, to be down here playing in New Zealand.

“It’s great to be here, the squad is unbelievable, it’s been great to be in here for the last two years. We are looking forward to the Tests now.”

“Coming down to New Zealand is an entirely different challenge than playing them at the Aviva, we have touched on that 100 per cent, but it’s a challenge we’re looking forward to and relishing. It’s five great games to be involved in and we can’t wait.”

Casey is also eagerly embracing his first international tour with Ireland.

“We were supposed to go on tour last year and that was cancelled, so even to get away on tour is a massive step for every international team — for bonding, actually seeing what you’re about and seeing what levels you can take it to.

“So, to be down in the pinnacle of international rugby and test yourself and bond as a group is brilliant.”

Rua Tipoki’s visit to the Irish squad had resonance with Casey in that the former Munster Heineken Cup-winning centre was a boyhood idol, while there was one other big New Zealand influence on him in the former All Blacks’ scrumhalf Alby Mathewson during his one season with the province.

“I learned a lot from him as a scrumhalf, he taught me lots. I have a lot of thanks to give to him. Watching him at training every day, learning off him and then watching him at weekends as well, knowing exactly what way he was prepped, that was good. He’s probably the one Kiwi person I worked under that gave me a lot of help.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times