Craig Casey and Ryan Baird give a glimpse of Ireland’s future in Rome
Scrumhalf’s commitment and speed of pass could see him usurp Conor Murray soon
Ryan Baird and Craig Casey celebrate after Ireland’s win in Rome. Photograph: Matteo Ciambelli/Inpho
Eighteen minutes in the Eternal City on February 27th 2021 was not the start of their journey. They won a Grand Slam together at under-20 before a Junior World Cup in Argentina, when they combined for a try so scintillating that Baird walked over the line without a single New Zealander laying a finger on him.
Irish rugby needed these 21-year-olds to be capped during this Six Nations. There are generational players blocking their path, but the established pecking order could dissolve before season’s end. Just like Tomás O’Leary wiped out Peter Stringer’s glide towards 100 caps or Conor Murray removed O’Leary from the base of Munster and Irish scrums, Casey’s raw aggression could snatch the nine jersey for himself any day now.
Either way, Murray’s response should make better players out of everyone involved.
Baird is already beyond the pale. There are few limits to such rare athleticism or scorching pace. The single handicap golfer is already lost to Dublin GAA, after what we imagine was a frighteningly effective period playing for Naomh Ólaf’s. The High School put him on the sporting map before a shift into St Michael’s College cordoned him off for rugby.
There are images of an infant Casey in the arms of Peter Stringer and Alan Quinlan during the mighty Shannon era that birthed Munster’s European crusades. There is another picture, looking slightly older at age six, as the Munster mascot beside a crouching Anthony Foley. He is Mossie Lawlor’s nephew.
“While it’s no surprise to anyone in Shannon that this moment has arrived,” tweeted the club, “we’re beyond proud to finally see Craig take to the pitch for his first cap.”
St Michael’s past men were keen to note that Baird makes it nine Ireland internationals from the school since Noel Reid’s solitary cap in 2014.
The platitudes that followed the pair’s injection of energy into a flagging Six Nations Saturday in Rome may sound overly complimentary - especially from Johnny Sexton - but they represent a coming decade of talent from traditional rugby nurseries.
“I don’t think I have ever come across anyone like him,” said Sexton of Casey. “It kind of reminds me what I read about Jonny Wilkinson - that is the only person I can relate him to. It is inspiring for the rest of the group and for someone like me, at this stage in my career, I like to be last off the pitch and I am never last off the pitch with him around. He has been brilliant.”
Down to a bellowing rendition of ‘Careless Whisper’ in the changing room, Casey’s debut was classy but Baird’s rampaging first carry was sweeter than any George Michael lyrics. Gathering a fumble by Cherif Traoré, he trucked past Johan Meyer and Paolo Garbisi before rolling over halfway with Mattia Bellini on his back.
“It really does settle you,” said Baird. “It gets you into your flow and you’re into the heart of the game. It definitely helped. That’s what I love doing.”
Ten rapid touches from Casey, before a marginally forward pass put James Lowe clear for a disallowed try, provided a snapshot of what the 2020s would look like if Ireland are to regain the status of contenders.
“He’s absolutely unreal, a freak athlete,” said Casey of Baird. “He runs over 10 metres per second, which is terrifying for a fella so big. He has all the capabilities to push on.”
The season can be saved in Murrayfield if the Dublin tearaway is allowed to combine with the Limerick conductor, like they did in Argentina two very long years ago. Like they did for 18 minutes in Rome.
“I played with some good guys in New Zealand, obviously, but I don’t think they were ever as dedicated as Craig is,” said Jamison Gibson-Park of an early career in the shadow of TJ Perenara. “He’s going to go a long way, there’s no doubt about that.”
Baird was laughing while jogging onto the field alongside Casey. It showed a complete absence of the fear that paralyses average players when they are exposed to international rugby.
“I was waiting for their nerves to kick in all week,” said Ireland coach Andy Farrell, another prodigy who made his debut for Wigan at 16. “They were nerveless, and it was an absolute credit to them and to their families.”
The symbiosis between Casey and Baird is real. One likes to seek the other out before kick-off.
“We stood beside each other for the anthems like I did with him in Wales when I made my debut for the 20s,” said Baird. “So, it was really special.”