Patient Duncan Casey’s solid progress a major plus for Munster

Shannon hooker has made giant strides with the province over the last 12 months

The case history of Duncan Casey is a classic one of both steady progress and then sudden elevation. This time last year the 23-year-old product of Glenstal Abbey and the Munster academy set-up was playing club rugby with Shannon, and, he candidly concedes, he wasn't near ready enough.

Yet tonight he makes his 19th competitive appearance for the province in perhaps the biggest game of his career.

Injuries to others, notably Mike Sherry and laterally Damien Varley as well, propelled Casey into Munster's front row.

Yet such has been the reliability of his scrummaging and throwing, that it prompts Anthony Foley to talk enthusiastically of a player who "just gets on with it".


Last Saturday, Munster won 20 of their 21 throws, and their hooker’s liveliness around the pitch was highlighted when Casey denied Rhys Webb a fifth try of the season down the blindside touchline. Yet he’d have been the last person who’d have thought all this was possible.

Good place

“This time last year my throwing was not in a good place at all,” says Casey – engagingly humble, thoughtful and slightly different by rugby player standards – in a quiet corner of the café in the University of Limerick sports complex after training last Tuesday evening.

“I would have been very, very nervous stepping up to throw the ball in the B&I games and club games. I just wasn’t comfortable with my technique.”

The problems actually reached a head in the week of his debut as a replacement against Perpignan in the Heineken Cup last December, when issues of self-confidence came to the surface after a bad day’s throwing in training on the Tuesday.

"But I had a chat with Jerry Flannery over the phone – he was over with Arsenal at that point – and he gave me some good advice which I took on board. Luckily, there was no sense of impending doom when I took to the pitch because we had secured the bonus point already and I couldn't possibly mess it up," he says cheerfully.

Having Flannery as his throwing coach is a boon.

“Flah was the best in the business really, and when you see him doing the drills it’s like he’s still playing. It’s second nature to him.”

Casey also credits skills coach Ian Costello, “absolutely brilliant”, for ironing out those flaws. Add ‘callers’ of the calibre of Paul O’Connell, and Casey admits: “They’ve given me an armchair ride really.”

Of O’Connell’s profound influence, Casey says: “It’s the standards he drives and the experience he has, how well he knows the game and how well he plays the game, there’s few enough people in the world that could compete with him. Flah was the best in the business and Paul is the best in the business at the moment. I’m quite proud to put on the red jersey alongside him.”

Former player

Although a Shannon man whose first forays into the club game were with Clanwilliam, Casey comes from a family with strong ties to Cork Constitution where his late uncle Bob was a former player and past president. Like Casey’s uncle, his dad played scrumhalf, as well as outhalf, though never played senior rugby. “He likes to put it down to a couple of injuries he had and I’d like to believe him.”

The youngest in the family to three older sisters – Ciana, Niamh and Emma – his mum, Mary, is only 5ft 2ins, and hence Casey is puzzled as to how he ended up in the front row himself. Growing up in Carrignavar, soccer and GAA were his sporting interests.

“I played soccer in Rockmount from the age of seven. I always like to tell people I played for Roy Keane’s old club, and that I wore the same jersey as him when I was younger. There was also hurling and football with Carrignavar.”

Rugby began to claim a foothold when he went to secondary school in Glenstal Abbey, with whom he played his first game at the age of 13 away to Bandon Grammar School.

“As the game was kicking off I remember thinking ‘is this actually happening?’ I was about to play a rugby match! I don’t think I contributed in any particularly big way to the outcome. We won the game. We didn’t win too many games with the under-13s in Glenstal, as you can imagine, but it was a fun day out and the first of many.”

Casey started as a loosehead that day, but completed a full circle from fullback to inside centre to the backrow and back to a hooker cum prop, at which point he broke into the Munster under-16s, and subsequently the province’s 18s, 19s and 20s sides, as well as one cap for the Irish Under-20s.

“When I first got the call for the Munster (under-16) trials there were four of us from Glenstal. It clashed with my first day of work experience in December of my transition year, which was due to be in Jury’s Inn in Parnell Street in Dublin.”

“I remember asking my dad ‘it clashes with my work experience, will I just leave it (the rugby trial) off?’ He went a bit mad. ‘Leave these things off? No way. You have to go and do it.’ I would always have been quite nervous in the Munster set-up.

“All the Limerick lads would have known each other, and all the Cork lads would have known each other. The rest of us usually kept to ourselves. It was a bit intimidating. You’d played against all these lads and generally they beat us and tended to be a bit bigger and better than us as well, so it took me quite a while to get settled in.”

Initially, after leaving Glenstal, Casey moved to Dublin to study Russian and Economics in Trinity, while playing club rugby in Lansdowne. Being the only Glenstal player in the Munster Under-16s and 18s, he’d sacrificed many a night out or weekend away with his school mates.

“I thought I’d had enough of it. All my friends from school were going to college up there. I thought I’d enjoy myself a bit, and I did. But it also cemented the idea in my head that I wanted to come back to Limerick and give it a go. I missed the discipline and routine of it.”

He abandoned his studies and his Lansdowne u-20 coach, Declan Fassbender, facilitated Casey's switch to Shannon in mid-season. He spent one and a half seasons in the Munster sub-academy, graduating to the full academy from 2011 for two more seasons and then a development contract last season. "Ian Sherwin was the academy director at the time and he always looked out for me."

One of the ripple effects of long-term injuries to Flannery and Denis Fogarty was that Casey broke into Munster's A squad for their British and Irish Cup campaign in 2010-11. As with Shannon, he was grateful for the opportunity which the A games brought. Patience is a virtue in the pro game.

“I say to young front-rowers coming out of school it’s not the end of the world if they’re not playing senior rugby in their first year. For a front-rower particularly, it’s a long game really. To come out of school at 18 and go into an AIL front row is one thing, but to try and expect to go into a British & Irish Cup front row is another thing entirely. I was lucky in that my progression was slow but steady.”

Few modules

The academy years also allowed him to study Law and Sociology at University of Limerick. He has a few modules to complete by August, after which he intends to do a post-grad in journalism. To that end, he’s been writing diaries for the Munster website and articles for the Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association website and magazine.

Journalism is in the blood as his dad was the night news editor with the Examiner – he now runs a PR firm called Casey Communications in Cork – and he was, and remains, "a hugely positive influence on me".

Casey also has a huge interest in politics and current affairs, and went to Palestine on his summer holidays last year.

“I started paying attention to it when I was about 16 and always had it in the back of my mind to go there and see what things were like. I was lucky enough to go there last year and meet some fantastic people, and set up a lot of meetings with NGOs (non-Governmental organisations).”

Munster’s form has not been good enough for his liking or for anyone in the camp. “It really hurts us when we lose in front of our home crowd,” he says.

Tonight offers them a shot at redemption.

“Leinster have set the standards in Irish rugby over the past five/six years, so it’s up to us – as Alex Ferguson would say – to knock them off their perch a little and try to get back to where we were a few years ago. Obviously that’s going to take time but I think we can really put down a marker this weekend.”

Now in the first season of a two-year professional contract, Casey notes what a difference a year makes. “I was playing for Shannon every weekend, and I love playing with Shannon. It’s a great club and I love playing with my friends.

“But at the end of the day, it’s tough coming in here (with Munster) and doing the same training as everyone else when you’re not getting a run at the weekend . . . But when you know you’re going to be involved your hunger to learn more and really get the most out of the week to culminate in a good performance at the weekend really shoots through the roof.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times