Munster & Ireland’s Craig Casey ticking all the right boxes

There was one name trending on Irish Twitter during Ireland u20’s win over France and subsequent Six Nations Championship win – Craig Casey.

I know Twitter tailors your trends to your interests but, to put it in perspective, the only other guys I’ve seen trending during games are the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Johnny Sexton, Jacob Stockdale and the like.

That’s the impact Craig Casey had on Friday night. Sure, having a classic David vs Goliath moment in the most literal sense I’ve seen on a rugby field for some time helped with that attention but believe me when I tell you that Casey’s performance was much more than a Lionhearted tackle on Jordan Joseph.

Munster Rugby Squad Training, UL, Limerick 11/2/2019 Craig Casey Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

It was a performance that electrified Musgrave Park and showed massive potential for the player that Casey might yet become.

I first saw Casey playing for ArdScoil back in the Munster Senior Cup and even then, you could see he had something about him. An obvious leader, rock-solid basics, an excellent goal kicker and that bit of X-Factor around the field that marks out young players from the pack. He was taken into the Munster Academy straight out of school – not something that happens everyone – and it was one of the least surprising additions in a few years.

Lionheart

The first thing you notice about Casey is his height – 5’5″ – and how unique that height profile is in the modern game, even for scrumhalves. For comparison in the Munster squad, Duncan Williams and James Hart are around 5’10” and Conor Murray is 6’2″. Aaron Smith is 5’7″. So Craig Casey’s 5’5″ is pretty notable in the modern game and it comes with its pros and cons. The cons are on the defensive side of the ball mainly.

The tackle on Joseph was an outstanding bit of defensive work but I wouldn’t want Casey having to involve himself too many times against lads of that size in every game he plays, as much as I’m sure he’d relish throwing himself into those collisions.

Under-20 Six Nations Championship Round 4, Irish Independent Park, Co. Cork 8/3/2019 Ireland Under 20’s vs France U20’s IrelandÕs Craig Casey is tackled by Arthur Vincent of France Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Oisin Keniry

As for the positives, there are many. Scrumhalf is one of the few positions where height isn’t a factor in determining the success of a player in 2019, given the trends we’re seeing develop.

When it comes to the factors that DO determine the success of a scrumhalf as the game rolls into the 2020s, Craig Casey has them in spades.

Successful scrumhalves need to have five qualities. They are;

  • An elite passing game off both sides. In practicality, this means being able to hit your targets reliably over the passing channels with good tempo and consistent accuracy.
  • Elite fitness and ruck attendance. It’s no good having a great pass if you aren’t attending most of your attacking rucks. The scrumhalf will touch the ball more than any other player and their skill set suffers the most from a cardio drop off, so having a consistent fitness base to ensure the quality of your skillset stays at a top level is a must.
  • A tactical mindset. It isn’t enough to go ruck to ruck, you have to make decisions between supporting any potential linebreak and doing your primary role at the ruck. Once there, you have to be capable of hitting the right carrying option at the right time or breaking when the opportunity arrives.
  • An elite kicking game. It might be a maligned area of the game but any scrumhalf that wants to be an international has to have a good kicking game. You need a good box kick and decent range on your own kick exits as a base requirement.
  • An X-Factor. This is the hardest part to describe because it’s one of those intangibles that all top international scrumhalves have. All I can give you are examples; Murray’s kicking game coupled with his ability to finish off chances like an outside centre. Faf De Klerks running game and agility. Aaron Smith’s running coupled with the width/range of his passing.

After looking at Casey’s performance against England and France, I think he’s got four of the five.

Yes, it’s Under 20 level and that doesn’t automatically scale up to even PRO14 level let alone the Test arena but it does give you performance markers when you compare players to their peers in other elite nations. In that context, Casey is playing remarkably well.

Ireland Rugby Open Training, Queens University, Belfast 1/3/2019 Craig Casey Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

His kicking is the one thing that’s a question mark for me at the moment in that I don’t really see Casey as a kicking scrumhalf and he wasn’t used in that manner by Ireland during this Six Nations. On the negative side of the ledger, he had one poor exit against France that leads to a try last week, which looked to be a last minute adjustment to avoid being charged down rather than poor mechanics on Casey’s part. Over the entire championship, I thought his exit kicking – although used sparingly – was quite good. 

Until I see more of Casey’s kicking at the top level, I’d keep it as a question mark for now but the signs are good. When we judge how Craig Casey operates as a scrumhalf though, we can’t ignore his key ability – the sheer pace and quality of his passing.

Sniper

The speed and accuracy of Casey’s passing are astonishingly good. The speed and range he gets from the base of the ruck influences much of the rest of Casey’s game – how he moves ruck to ruck and how he breaks when he chooses to do so.

There’s not one ounce of fat on his pass and it’s often right in the sweet spot – outside shoulder and chest level – from anywhere from 1m to 15m+ in range. Most of Ireland’s Six Nations success had Casey’s passing at its core. 

And these weren’t isolated passes either. After watching both home games against France and England I counted two that I’d class as “poor”.  Casey is remarkably consistent from ruck to ruck, pass to pass.

The pace, range and accuracy that Casey gets on his work from the base at the ruck puts him an elite range for his age group and hints at massive potential as he progresses through the ranks. His pass is so good that it allows him extra time to assess his options at the ruck in a way that would critically harm other scrumhalves who don’t have his passing ability.

His movement ruck to ruck and the tempo he generates with the pace and sharpness of his pass made it easier for Ireland to attack the gain line against England and France, who were much bigger man for man. 

Against France, for example, Casey’s tempo was outstanding. In one sequence in the second half, Casey attended four rucks in quick succession, all of them sub-three seconds, and the French defence couldn’t afford to sit still for a single phase. Casey followed his pass with a lovely direct support line and consistently scanned the opposition fringe defence for opportunities to break.

Casey’s constant movement and the sheer width he gets on his pass with very little wind up creates space and angles for his outhalf and, subsequently, Ireland’s wider power carriers to work with. Casey’s pass to the ruck and smart support angles combined with the velocity and accuracy of his passing meant that Ireland u20s get extra width and range on their ball carrying structure – which goes some way to explaining why a generally smaller Irish pack has managed so much gainl ine success against the likes of England and Wales.

That’s before we get to Casey’s X-Factor – his acceleration, agility and stepping ability.

When you see Casey approach rucks, you can’t help but notice how he assesses the fringe defenders for breaking opportunities.

As he gets analysed by opposition coaches, this tendency will be important for him to keep on certain phases. Casey’s agility around the base of the ruck is such that the opposition have to structure their defence tightly in the A/B channel, while their outside defence has to watch for the width his passes generate.

If you have sloppy pillar defence, Casey is really good at taking you for a walk and then cutting back inside.

He sold the French A/B defenders on a wide pass to Wren or Hodnett on the break that lead to his injury in that game. He’s didn’t even sell cover defenders with a plant. His agility and footwork got him back inside before they could react. That meant there’s no visual cue for the defenders to react to and Casey’s acceleration takes him away from Joseph in the second line.

When you look at Casey working as a kick transition runner, you can see his full repertoire of running skills. At one point against France, Casey electrified the crowd with a counter attack you might see off Faf De Klerk. 

His initial angle in-field, his step back, his ability to pass fake, his carrying of the ball in two hands, his acceleration through a gap, and his power step combined with an offload.  this is top drawer stuff.

It was an outstanding transition attack by a talented, agile runner. Combine that with his solid kicking and outstanding passing game and you have a serious scrumhalf prospect.

There are a lot of obstacles along the way between the potential of the here and now and deliverance of that potential on the world stage. Injury, rather than some notional idea of being “blocked” by players further up the depth chart, is the biggest killer for any talented prospect’s career and that’s something that Casey will have to navigate.

He’s young yet – just 19 – so he’s got a lot of time to left to develop. When he does, I truly believe that if he can stay fit and take his opportunities when presented that Casey has the potential to be a very special player for Munster and Ireland.

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