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Irish giant’s decade in Exile draws to a close

 

YOU often read in this type of newspaper feature that Player A is “one of the good guys of sport”. Usually, to be fair, they are decent men but sometimes they’re not. Today, though, when as much attention is given to managing a public figure’s image as it is to what they actually do, it’s hard to tell what’s real from what’s spin.

The thing about Bob Casey is I don’t have to tell you what kind of human being is because, chances are, you already know.

Everybody, it seems, has met Bob at some point of his 10-year career with London Irish. Nobody has anything but good things to say about him.

In the Irish bars of the English capital you’ll often hear a fella complain that London Irish aren’t really Irish anymore. And they don’t play in London. So why would I go out there?

Then will come the reply: “Yeah… but Bob Casey?”

Instead of launching into a spiel about how he’s only one man, the complainant will usually just smile and shrug and go, “Yeah, I suppose.”

A colleague of mine at the Irish Post speaks about a book called The Power of Now. He tells me that essentially it’s about how every moment of your life is an opportunity to be positive; that what you put out is what you get back.

The book was written by Eckhart Tolle but it could just have easily have been penned by Bob Casey. The big man has left a trail of goodwill in his wake this past decade. So much so that fans who might have drifted away from London Irish – as their team drifted west to Reading and found it harder to recruit elite Irish players – remained loyal.

With retirement looming in May, Bob’s bones are raw. If his arthritic knees could talk they’d say it’s high time they were given some respite.

Casey will have a major operation when he stops playing. That will merely delay the necessity for knee replacements; keep his God-given joints in situ until he’s 45 to 50. Then he’ll be on the surgeon’s table again.

He could claim that he’s borne the weight of London Irish over the years and is now paying the price. Casey wouldn’t say that, though. He’s old school; self-effacing; far more likely to laugh than cry.

“I’m sure it’ll be tough then but hopefully there’ll be some crazy [prosthetic] knee that’ll make me faster, stronger,” he says, grinning as we sit upstairs at Sunbury. He adds: “I certainly wouldn’t have changed anything or retired earlier.”

****

It’s been some trip. Time has flown; it doesn’t travel any other way. Six months from retirement now for 33-year-old Big Bob but it doesn’t seem so long ago that he was chasing a Gaelic football around a field in Allenwood, deep in the Bog of Allen, west County Kildare.

Being a giant has served Casey well in lineouts down the years. But before all the clean takes and steals and disruptions his exceptional height counted against him in a different code.

The GAA rulebook, which has reduced many a giant to tears, cut Casey down to size too.

The teenage Bob got involved in a stalemate that day while playing for Maynooth against Allenwood that day. The customary way to restart the game is a throw ball. Meat and drink to a future international second-row forward. Far too much meat and drink thought the referee.

The man in black took one look (up) at the young Casey and said there was no way he was lobbing the ball in between him and an average Irish youth. It bore no relation to a fair contest.

“Yeah,” Bob laughs. “That’s actually a rule, but I was throwing my toys out of the pram.”

His adolescent self needn’t have worried, there would be plenty more opportunities to soar over less lofty opponents. While turning out for Maynooth in hurling and football, he played rugby for North Kildare. Two or three games a weekend, no bother, just keep on running.

North Kildare is the more urbanised corner of the Lilywhite county, the south it’s untamed cousin. There were some rough outings down the country in those days, especially in hurling.

During one match in Monastereven a row broke out. “It kicked off and the game was abandoned,” says Bob. “The opposition were trying to get into our changing rooms. And as we were going to the cars there was all sorts of stuff being thrown at us.” Where’s the rulebook when you need it eh?

What was scary then is funny in retrospect. All told, Bob had “great times” playing for Maynooth. “They’re a good crew.”

He also played football at school in Salesians, Celbridge. Although Casey says he “was big and slow”, he still played in a Colleges Final at Croke Park. Along the way he faced St Mary’s of Drogheda who featured one Shane Horgan.

After his Junior Cert, though, Bob’s was considering the first big move of his life.

“My brother who is 10 years older than me was playing for Blackrock College rugby club and he was doing really well. So I’d go up and watch him play. And I was fascinated by schools rugby.”

St Patrick’s Day finals held a special appeal for young Bob. Lansdowne Road packed with schoolboys wearing their colours and an army of past-pupils. A real sense of carnival. He wanted in. So he told his parents he’d like to move and three years after attending his first Leinster Schools Cup final as a fan, he was playing in one.

“Everyone jokes it was a rugby scholarship, but mam and dad will show you the receipts,” he says.

The first couple of months away from home were tough, but Bob soon settled into life as a boarder at rugby-obsessed Blackrock College. They trained every day after school and even at lunch time.

“It was almost like a professional set-up.”

A professional set-up with one goal: winning the ‘S’. Fortunately for him, and the school, Bob’s arrival coincided with the presence of a bunch of other exceptional talents: scrum-half Ciaran Scally, hooker Peter Smyth, Leo Cullen at No 8 and flanker Barry Gibney.

Final victories followed in 1995 against Clongowes and ’96 against Geordan Murphy’s Newbridge College. Brian O’Driscoll watched that latter triumph from the Blackrock bench, his fifth-year body not having quite developed yet.

“We were just hard, hard workers,” says Casey. “I think we were the most talented team and I doubt anyone worked harder than us either. It wasn’t as if we thought we had the God-given right to win, we actually outworked everyone.”

To a lot of people, Senior Cup rugby is life’s pinnacle. To someone who’s played professionally pretty much ever since winning the thing 15 years ago, you’d imagine it would be a footnote. But that’s not the way Casey sees things. He smiles thinking about those schooldays. “They were great times,” he says. “They really were when you look back at them.”

And all that Ross O’Carroll Kelly stuff … Is it true or an over-egged myth?

“I’d like to say it’s just a stereotype,” he says laughing. “But they do exist.”

****

He ruled Leinster with Rock then, his rugby carer stretched out ahead, no end in sight. Now, the end-tape looms. But this is no lap of honour. The body may be battered but the spirit is more than willing. In conversation you get impression of a man eager to make the most of every second he has left on the pitch for London Irish.

“I really want to make sure I leave a legacy here,” he says. “So in my last year, even when I’m not playing as much as I was, I make sure I’m as professional as ever.”

Casey gets an edge from his homework. He reckons he’s not the most athletic specimen on the circuit, but he can be the best prepared. Preparation is done on the club’s Apple Macs at Sunbury. The software is so advanced nowadays that you can analyse your own performance down to the minute and, crucially, that of your opponents.

During the week, Casey will target the opposition’s lineout. He’ll watch and watch until the patterns are burned into his brain. Then he’ll put on headphones, press play again and close his eyes. He’s listening hard for their codes; trying to break them.

Most teams win 80 to 85 per cent of their own lineout ball. Casey says that if you can get that number down to even 75 per cent, you’ve got a platform for victory.

Whenever somebody steals his ball, Casey is “sick, you’d take it personally”.

But it hasn’t happened much. “For a good few years running we stole most lineouts in the Premiership,” he says. “Nick Kennedy and the boys. It’s our bread and butter. We had the best lineout on our own ball for a few years as well.”

Irish ruled the skies but this wasn’t just down to supreme organisation and soaring locks. There are dark arts employed at this set-piece. One of the big ones is cross calling, where you shout random stuff – or codes gleaned from the tapes or earlier in the game – when the opposition are throwing in. “The only drawback is the Irish accent,” says Bob. “Or when we play a French team, my French isn’t great.”

The lineout, says Casey, is “a fine art to be fair to it. Now, there could be 70, 80 different options to call.”

When Bob was starting out on the professional route it was more simple: Just hit two, four or six.

****

Casey first thought he could make a living out of this game after he jumped two, four and six in Australia with Ireland Schools.

Back to that in a moment. First, a story about how he was blessed to have the option of becoming a professional sportsman. While turning out for the family business, Casey Courts Ltd, young Bob was involved in something of an industrial blunder down in Wexford Tennis Club.

Older brother Danny was doing the rolling. “He said to me, jump on you finish it.” What sounded like a welcome break from labouring soon turned sour. The roller’s engine started spluttering…

“Then it ran out of diesel and I took the hit. We had to get someone out to bleed the engine, and obviously tar goes off. Dad’s actually quite chilled but he went through me. Jesus, it wasn’t pretty.”

Bob has never quite lived that one down and won’t be surprised if a more detailed, colourful version crops up in Danny’s best-man speech in June when the younger brother marries his fiancée Shauna Murphy from Terenure.

The joke in the Casey household is that Bob was fired from the family firm. The reality is he had to be taken off the books for tax reasons because rugby was starting to pay his way.

“We were the first Irish schools side to beat Australia. Around then, a lot of us were picked for an IRFU National Academy where you were monitored and given programmes.

“I actually got an injury when playing for the Ireland under 19s, I had to have surgery on my back. I cracked disc and was out for about a year-and-a-half.”

He returned and was soon capped for Ireland, his debut coming against Australia in the 1999 World Cup. Looking back, the breakthrough came too soon for Casey. “I certainly didn’t know what it was all about,” he says.

And you didn’t know then how hard it would to get back on the team during your peak years?

“Well, yeah, exactly, this is it,” he says.

Casey’s career has coincided with a golden age for lock forwards in Ireland. Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan have nailed down the slots. So, do Bob and his old school friend Cullen ever shoot the breeze and say, “that could have been us?”

“Yeah we do talk about it,” he says. “But we have a huge level of respect for the two boys. O’Connell will go down as one of the best locks ever to play for Ireland and I really respect Donnacha …. his work rate … and he’s never injured which is phenomenal.”

During his early days at Leinster, it was a similar traffic jam that persuaded Casey to take the slip road marked London. He was in a rotation with Cullen and Malcolm O’Kelly.

“As a rugby player you want to be able to do your job. Training is hard. There’s no way you want to train Monday to Friday and not play. That’s why I came over here. All I wanted to do was play week in, week out. That’s when you’re happiest.”

He moved to the St Margarets area of Twickenham, near teammate Barry Everitt, and settled in quickly.

“London Irish has always been a great family. Everyone looks after everyone else.”

Back then the family was more inclined to tear it up after a game. There were some epic nights in the Three Kings pubs, Twickenham in the company of the BibleCode Sundays.

About five or six years ago, though, Casey says the increasing demands of professionalism meant that a night on the lash became the exception and not the norm.

Still, the social side of the club is thriving. A family day complete with Santa Claus is planned to accommodate all the players with kids. A more traditional rugby-style night is also planned. Casey and Brian Blaney recently sent around an email to their teammates, the subject ‘Geansai nollaig’.

The majority of the players didn’t sit through 14 years of Irish classes in school but a quick tutorial was provided. “So now everyone has a Christmas jumper and we’re all going up the town.”

Ideally, London Irish would have a few more players who understood phrases like ‘Geansai nollaig’. With the sun setting on Casey’s time in Exile, the need for fresh green blood becomes ever more acute. Casey says the club are aware of this and are keen to capitalise on the new wave of young, Irish, rugby-mad emigrants in London.

So perhaps they will eventually move back to the capital. Perhaps they will attract more high-calibre Irish players. Those debates will be played out over the next year.

For now, we tip our hat to the Exile’s totem of the early 21st century. Asked how he’d like to be remembered as a London Irish player, Bob hesitates for about the first time all morning.

“I’d like to think I always gave 100 per cent,” he says. “I always gave everything my body could have possibly given. I’ve been passionate about London Irish. I suppose loyalty as well … Honest … All the traits that Irish people have.”

All the traits that have made many a supporter keep the faith. Those fans will miss him, and he’ll miss playing in front them.

The crowd is something the seasoned pro blocks out during the game but “some games you will feel it, like Munster when we played them at home [last season] the noise was just incredible. When I retire, that’ll be what I miss the most.”

Two Saturdays ago in Paris, before he came on a sub to lead the Exiles to victory against Racing Metro, Casey’s heart-rate was climbing through the gears.

“I was actually nervous for the first time in eight years, because I hadn’t done this in nearly six months with the injury. And the buzz is … nothing will replace it. And when the final whistle went and we had maybe seven, eight hundred fans there and they all ran on the pitch …. Nothing can beat that … But, you just move on to another chapter in your life.”

 

* Bob Casey’s testimonial dinner is on March 1 2012 and his testimonial evening for supporters takes place on April 14. Full details at BobCasey.co.uk

 

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