NOT A great week for clubs in rugby, if you look at the headlines.
Carlow Rugby Club was in dire straits last week - appealing to its members for help - and only last Saturday this newspaper carried news of Garryowen’s anger with the Munster Academy.
Yet beyond the headlines, better news. Highfield RFC unveiled a new floodlit complex in Cork on Friday night, an optimistic commitment in these times, while a couple of miles away on the same evening, Cork Constitution celebrated the commitment of one of their members, Fred Casey - who is now entering his 47th year coaching kids at the club.
A partial list of Casey’s charges would include a few useful players: David Corkery, Frankie Sheehan, John Kelly, Kenny Murphy, Luke Fitzgerald, Paul Wallace, Peter Stringer, Ralph Keyes, Richard Wallace and Ronan O’Gara.
At last count there were 16 full Irish internationals and four British and Irish Lions who’d graduated from Casey’s teams, but last Friday, when this column tracked him down in the Constitution clubhouse, he was keener to chat about instilling enthusiasm for the game in his charges than listing the greatest hits.
“Once they’re enjoying it, that’s the thing,” Casey said.
“You can criticise the team but you praise the individual. You want to improve their skills obviously, but you also want them just to enjoy the game.”
One of the individuals who received plenty of praise was on hand nearby to bear that out.
“When you were nine or ten in this club, even at that age, there was an ambition to be on Freddy’s U12s,” Ralph Keyes revealed.
“For us, it was like an Irish team or the Lions. And it wasn’t the U12s – it was Freddie’s U12s.
“I remember him bringing us to an U12s game down in Garryowen when we’d hardly ever been outside Cork, and that was the first of a lot of trips to Limerick.
“It was all about enjoying yourself. Freddie’s a very good coach and had a great skill in getting the understanding of the game across to kids, but he also created a great atmosphere for everyone to enjoy themselves.”
Half a century in the field – literally – puts a few anecdotes in your pocket. Casey is circumspect about the Constitution out-half who was advised to work on his speed over the first ten metres (“I’m the playmaker,” the youngster said, “I don’t need to sprint.”)
He’s also discreet about the only player who, on one of his famous overseas rugby tours, confessed to being homesick (the same man represented Ireland at the highest level with distinction, with presumably no problems on away trips).
“I’ve coached plenty of players who’ve had their sons come up, but I might retire if I coach the grandson of someone I coached back in the sixties. I’ve a grand-nephew on the horizon. He could be here in three or four years, and that could be a sign to pack it in.”
When it comes to recent graduates, Duncan Williams is a player Casey rates highly, as is Billy Holland.
Seeing the likes of Ronan O’Gara play for Ireland and the Lions was rewarding, but the coach took as much from the fact that O’Gara stayed in touch with the family who put him up when he visited Ballymena with Con U12s over two decades ago.
Casey started bringing his U12s on playing tours to Wales and further afield years ago, and in 1990 the IRFU asked him to bring U12s and U11s from Con to represent Ireland at an international tournament.
When both sides won their age groups, Casey became the first coach to bring a European title to Munster.
The next team to do so would also carry his stamp: the U12 half-back partnership for Con back then was Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer.
A small man with the alertness of one of life’s scrum-halves, Casey was inducted into the Cork Con Hall of Fame last weekend ahead of the club’s annual dinner, but he spread the credit before the festivities even began.
“Con O’Leary and Ned O’Connor here, I’d class as my second fathers. They were a huge influence on me when it came to other coaches.
“Mind you, I went on a coaching course in the eighties in Wales that had an effect on me as well. I was warned to lose a stone before heading over, and after a week doing the course I’d lost another stone.
“I always stayed with the U12s. I don’t agree with following a team, if you’re doing something wrong they’ll do it wrong all the way up. They deserve to learn different things from different coaches as well.”
The crowd in the Con bar were warming up to go in for dinner, and Casey leaned in over his pint of orange.
“To be honest with you, this kind of thing isn’t my scene at all.”
Maybe not. But every club needs someone like him on the scene.
* contact: email@example.com ; Twitter: MikeMoynihanEx.
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