Bob Casey: The Exile's dream of a call from home

Bob Casey feared he was ending his Ireland career when he left Dublin to join London Irish – so it proved, but the big lock grows ever more conspicuous by his absence. He tells Chris Hewett about the journey
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Those who witnessed the last rites of Ireland's comprehensive World Cup humiliation at the end of September were left with the indelible image of a vaunted, mightily experienced pack being given the seven-bells treatment by eight hard-heads from the Argentine pampas. Last Sunday, when London Irish played Sale in the Guinness Premiership, a rather large gentleman from County Kildare inflicted similar indignities on a certain Sébastien Chabal, who is not everyone's idea of a horizontal pacifist. The moral of the story? If Bob Casey had been playing for his country in Paris three and a half months ago, the South Americans might at least have heard a few bells of their own.

Casey squared up to Chabal, that fearsome symbol of extreme French physicality, early in the encounter, and lorded it over him for the rest of the game.

You might say that, in the battle of the enforcers, the London Irish captain did all the enforcing that mattered. This was not entirely surprising, for Casey is a very substantial unit indeed. The tale of the tape puts Casey at 6ft 7in, while the speak-your-weight machine splutters "one at a time, please" before giving a reading of something approaching 20st. It seems he was built by the firm responsible for the Bluestack Mountains.

There is, however, more to Casey than size, even though the announcer at the Madejski Stadium cannot resist using the prefix "BIG" every time he refers to the captain. At 29, seven years after winning the last of his small handful of caps for Ireland, he is performing as well as anyone in the Premiership and a whole lot better than his fellow second-rowers back home. If Eddie O'Sullivan, his national coach, had an ounce of sense, he would pick him for the Six Nations Championship, which happens to be just around the corner.

"The thing is, Eddie doesn't watch people playing in the Premiership – not in the flesh, at any rate," Casey said this week. "My God, I'd love to pull on the shirt again. It still means everything to me, Irish rugby, and I felt terrible when everything unravelled in the World Cup. I'm pretty friendly with a lot of the people who were in the squad, and my heart bled for them. All that training, all that sacrifice – and for what? I thought they'd give it a real shot, but they didn't look like beating the French or the Pumas. They might even have lost to the Georgians.

"Do I still have ambitions to play at international level? Yes, very much so. I'm just a boy in second-row terms, and if you pressed me on it, I'd say I was playing as well as I ever did. But I guess I knew the score when I left Dublin to come here – I understood the risk, and accepted it. Mind you, I initially planned this as a two-year trip, to broaden my rugby education a little and experience something different. As that was five years ago, you can probably tell I have no regrets about joining this wonderful club."

Casey is a man of Kildare, hailing from Maynooth, "where they train all the priests, not that I ever thought of going down that road." Trevor Brennan, another frank and forthright competitor, was born a couple of miles up the road, and when Casey made his Test debut against the Wallabies during the 1999 World Cup, he found his old friend alongside him at the coalface. It was a rough match – "Feisty enough, to be sure," Casey agreed – and at one stage, Brennan was combination-punched clean out of Lansdowne Road by the formidable Toutai Kefu. "To be fair to Trev, he was being held back by one of the other Aussies," Casey pointed out, loyally. "You know, I jumped against the great John Eales that day. I readily confirm that he was all they cracked him up to be."

Talking of jumping, Casey is an integral part of one of the most successful line-out operations ever seen in the professional club game. London Irish have a 98 per cent success rate in the Premiership, some 14 points better than their nearest rivals. Characteristically, the captain gives the credit to everyone else – the specialist middle man Nick Kennedy, the hooker David Paice, the props who lift, the loose forwards who act as decoys, and, most of all, the coach, Toby Booth. But he must be doing something right himself, surely?

"I'd love to say that I was solely responsible for making our line-out what it is, but there are a lot of people who put a mountain of work into this," he replied. "Toby is the ideas man, the person who designs the thing. He's brilliant in the analysis room, is Toby. And I have to say that David's throwing is at the heart of it. Line-outs aren't about the hooker in isolation: there's the call, the lift, the timing of the jump, all sorts of things. But there is a sense of calm about David on the important throws, an air of certainty that he will hold his nerve.

"I thought he might have made the England squad for the Six Nations, and I'm disappointed that he missed out. His time will come, though. I'm sure of it."

Assuming this most well-oiled of set-piece mechanisms does not seize up at the Madejski this afternoon, Casey can expect to lead his colleagues to victory over Newport-Gwent Dragons in the penultimate round of the Heineken Cup pool stage, taking another significant step towards a home quarter-final.

The Welsh regional side are no longer a going concern in the tournament. If their performance against the Exiles in November was anything to go by, another 30-point shellacking is the least they can expect. "Yes, we scored six tries that day, and the game was over inside half an hour," Casey recalled. "But that was a freak, and we can't afford to approach this match thinking it will happen a second time.

"This is such an important occasion for us, one of the most important I can remember. We're a strong side now, an ambitious side: we expect to finish in the top four or five of the Premiership, and we believe we're good enough to make an impact in Europe. But the thing that separates us from teams like Wasps, who have won so many trophies in recent seasons, is that we have yet to prove we can win the really big games on a consistent basis. We're beginning to move towards that this season – Gloucester came to us fully loaded, so did Perpignan and Sale, and we beat them all, playing what I would call fearless rugby. This is another marker for us.

"I'm confident in our ability to take the next step. When I first joined the club, they'd just won the Powergen Cup and the place was buzzing. But there was no serious recruitment, no great urgency to move up a level.

"I think at the time, the management were more intent on proving they could run the place without taking a massive financial hit than splash out on new players. For a couple of seasons, we were down in the relegation zone, fighting to stay up. Then Brian Smith [director of rugby, an Australian who once played Test rugby for Ireland] and Toby moved in, and we had lift-off: great signings, great preparation and conditioning, big steps up all round.

"It would mean so much to me to take something tangible from this campaign.

"We're a tight-knit squad – we spend a lot of time together, socialising with each other, and doing a lot of lunching as a group. We have players from eight or nine different countries here, and when people come from everywhere, it's vital they look after and look out for each other. Some people have a go at us for not being 'London Irish' any more, but there's definitely an Irish spirit, and it manifests itself in the amount of mutual support around the place. Besides, if you pop upstairs to the office, you'll hear nothing but Irish accents."

To his great credit, Casey has bought into London Irish life heart and soul. On the field, he accepted the captaincy despite not being entirely sure he was cut out for it, and has made the position his own; off the field, he is on the board of the Christina Noble Children's Foundation, one of the club's chosen charities. He was the players' player of the season in 2003-04, and won the supporters' version of the award the following season. There is no more honest professional in the Premiership.

Happily, his family in Ireland have bought into it too. "We're a big family and a close one, and there's never a game goes by when a few of them aren't up there in the stand," he said. "That's important to me. One of the things I had to weigh up in deciding whether to come to England was how I felt about leaving the family behind. It was difficult, I can tell you. The fact that they make the effort to watch me makes it easier."

If the aforementioned Mr O'Sullivan also made the effort, he would be happier still. It might even happen, if London Irish secure the home quarter-final they crave and find themselves playing Munster in the last eight. The coach would have to make the trip for an Irish affair of that magnitude. After which, he might feel he had to pick Casey.