There has been some semi-final success for a Munsterman in recent weeks and for hooker Duncan Casey his appearance for Grenoble in tomorrow’s Pro D2 final against Perpignan represents a vindication of his decision not to walk away from the game he loves.
While former team-mates take on Edinburgh in Limerick today, still licking their wounds from a second Champions Cup semi-final defeat in successive seasons, Casey will be in Toulouse as Grenoble conclude preparations at Stade Ernest Wallon for a shot at Top14 rugby next season.
The 27-year-old had been on the verge of quitting rugby altogether as his Munster career, which got underway with the province’s young player of the year award for 2014-15, reached a roadblock earlier this season. A series of injuries had denied him the game time necessary to stake a claim to regular first-team rugby and disillusionment with the game had set in. What altered Casey’s outlook was a lifeline to France and the chance to sign for ProD2 challengers Grenoble as a medical joker.
A sliding doors moment for sure, made possible by an injury to a player he had never met, and Casey made the leap before the opening slammed shut, leaving Munster in late January. He arrived to watch his new club lose at home to league leaders Perpignan. Not a good omen but the next game, with the Corkman making his debut, proved to be a turning point in the campaign to get out of France’s second tier. It came the following week with first away win since November as the visitors toppled Vannes with a last-minute try in a 21-20 victory.
Grenoble have been beaten only once in the last 11 games that gave them a third-place finish and put them into tomorrow’s final courtesy of a quarter-final win at home to Biarritz and last weekend’s 22-15 semi-final success at Montauban.
“This is a massive game to be a part of, which is great. Certainly it is a nice surprise in comparison to where I was before Christmas and before I came over here.”
A chance to play in the Top14 would have been part of the attraction of moving to Grenoble but whichever division the club plays in next season, Casey will definitely be a part of that campaign having signed on for 2018-19 less than two months after arriving on that medical joker exemption.
“It’s such a long season in the Pro 2, 30 ordinary league games and everyone’s form is a bit inconsistent but I think a lot of people had written us off and didn’t give us much of a chance.
“I think there’s a lot of genuine belief now within the club and amongst the supporters as well that we’ve an excellent chance of winning on Sunday and bouncing straight back up to the Top14.
“We’re in a neutral venue now and the fact both teams are playing very good rugby should make for a cracker. It will be warm, similar to what the Munster boys played in, in Bordeaux a couple of weeks back so that will be something to deal with as well.”
There has been plenty for Casey to deal with having made the move to Grenoble in the midst of a league campaign rather during the summer off-season.
“It was a tough adjustment at the beginning. It was difficult coming in as a joker midway through the season and having missed pre-season, when all the new guys can integrate. Everyone’s settled into their routines already so it’s not the easiest thing to do, particularly when you’re arriving in on your own to a completely different country.
“My French isn’t too bad but to all intents and purposes I didn’t speak the language, so it’s probably taken the bones of three months to get comfortable with everything and get to know the lads reasonably well. I’d like to think I’ve settled into the place now.”
That said, as a member of the ever-hungry front-row union, Casey is still coming to terms with the restaurant opening hours in Grenoble, which are typically French.
“There are no restaurants open between 2pm and 7pm. French people only eat three times a day and that’s been a bit of a headwreck all right when you’re used to being able to go and get a feed of pasta somewhere after training back home. There’s a danger of getting lost in the patisseries, which are places which someone in my position should be avoiding at all costs.”
A law graduate and campaigner for a Free Palestine, Casey has often ploughed a different furrow to most rugby players, as any follower of @BigDunc123 on Twitter will attest.
A sideline as the presenter of the Munster Rugby podcast has not been repeated at Grenoble so far - “My French isn’t up to a decent enough standard, unfortunately. We’ll see.” - but there are different opportunities to satisfy an enquiring mind and being a member of a cosmopolitan playing group at Grenoble is an ongoing pleasure, says the hooker.
“I’m the only Irish guy here and there are people here from all over the world. We’ve guys here from South Africa, New Zealand the Pacific Islands, the Cooks Islands, Samoa, Tonga. We’ve the first and only professional rugby player from Tahiti here (wing Teiva Jacquelain) and a couple of guys from the Wallis and Futuna islands, which I’d never heard of but is down in French Polynesia.
“It’s a nice dynamic and I’ve learned a lot. I’d be quite interested in travel and learning about other cultures so just to hear different people’s perspectives having grown up in places like the Pacific Islands and how different life was there and how different their outlook on things is, has been refreshing. It’s been enjoyable getting to know guys from every corner of the world. It doesn’t get boring and I’m only getting to know the guys now.
“I’ve enjoyed being the outsider, as difficult as it has been. It’s a situation I would always have liked to be in and had I stayed in Munster for my whole career I probably never would have been in that position, not as a rugby player anyway.
“It’s a reminder that we were quite isolated in Limerick, not through any fault of our own but I’ve found it good to get that different perspective.”
Unsurprisingly, Casey has no regrets about making his move away from Munster.
“I don’t, no. Realistically I’d given it a go with Munster. It had worked for me in the beginning and had gone as well as it possibly could have but shit happens I suppose.
“There was just one injury after another and I was in a position whereby I decided I was going to finish up because it didn’t look like there was anything on the horizon.
“I had told Munster I was going to retire and they indicated that they wanted me to stay on but I’d just been so broken down by the whole thing that I’d had enough of it and I was ready to start something else.
“As much as a sickener as that would have been I was okay with it and was actually kind of excited to be moving on to something else that I might be interested in.
“Rugby is not going to last forever and if I get another four or five years out of this, now, I can consider myself very lucky.
“I think that helps me in a way, the fact that I don’t feel like I’m under pressure to keep playing at all because I’ve already dealt with the whole situation and now the thought of retirement doesn’t scare the shit out of me like it might have done.
“It did in the beginning but I got my head around it so I feel like I’m in a better place now to just enjoy the fact that I’m able to have a really cool job for another year or two or five years or whatever it might be.
“There’s less pressure on me now, which is a nice feeling to have as well. It’s a brilliant place to be in, definitely. It’s given me a new lease of life and opening my eyes to stuff as well.
“I was talking a few months ago to (former Munster lock) John Madigan, who is playing up at Massy now. It was when I was obviously surplus to requirements at Munster and we catching up on the phone and he said ‘you’re in the exact same position I was in last year, you just need a fresh start’.
“Thankfully through sheer fluke really this opportunity came up and I was able to take it.
“So it’s a fresh start, I’ve signed on for another year but if it all falls apart then it all falls apart. I’ve come over, given it a go and I’m enjoying it and doing something that I certainly didn’t think I’d be doing four months ago. It’s only positives, so I can only be in a good frame of mind.”
Victory over Perpignan in Toulouse tomorrow and Casey really will be flying.
“It would be great if we can do the business now on Sunday and hopefully Munster can bring home a bit of silverware as well.”
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