Mike Casey living the dream again after injury hell
By John Harrington
Mike Casey has the relaxed air of a man who is very happy with his lot in life, and it’s easy to understand why.
When we speak it’s just four days after Limerick’s epic extra-time Munster SHC Final victory over Clare, a win that was especially sweet for the Na Piarsaigh man.
Being back in the thick of the action on a big day like that meant an awful lot, because he had to watch from the stand when Limerick won Munster and All-Ireland titles in 2020 and 2021.
He ruptured his cruciate in a challenge match against Galway in October 2020 and shortly after returning to action nine months later he injured the cartilage in the same knee.
Surgery to repair the cartilage was ultimately unsuccessful, so Casey had to go under the knife again in December 2021 to have the cartilage removed which necessitated another period of rehab.
Not surprisingly, it was a hugely challenging time for the 26-year-old.
“It was extremely tough period, going through lockdown as well, so it was a tough 18, 19 months,” said Casey.
“My last game was Kilkenny in 2019 before this year, so that was a long lay-off.
“It was tough but looking on and seeing how well the boys were doing, what they were achieving, made it that bit easier.
“In the gym there was no skipping a set or skipping a rep, when you were back you wanted to contribute to the group, but to do that you had to be at the highest level because of what the boys were doing on the field, what they were achieving. So unless you were at peak fitness and ready to go you weren’t going to get back in.
“There were definitely dark moments - my girlfriend, Jessica, I’ve been with her five or six years and she was excellent through it all. Any time I had a setback and needed someone to talk to she was there for me.
“And with the group, a lot of the lads have been through a lot of things, knee surgeries and things like that. And I never left the group. I was asked to come in and help with stats and that so I was part of everything that was going on, there was some small bit to contribute to the team.”
As the photo above this sentence will attest to, Casey kept busy in the gym during his time away from the pitch.
He was never short of company there either, because a gym culture is very much an engrained one in this Limerick panel.
There’s a simple reason why Limerick win more than their fair share of rucks and 50-50 balls – their physical conditioning is excellent because its something they’ve worked on away from the pitch since joining the Limerick academy as teenagers.
“We love the gym in Limerick, we’re as competitive there as anywhere,” says Casey.
“Being able to keep going to the gym with the boys was massive in those two years, go in and lift a few weights with them in that competitive spirit.
“If you're progressing there, it is definitely going to help you on the field. Yes, it's not the be all and end all of it. You still have to put the ball over the bar.
“Your bicep curls aren't going to do that for you. But we're really, really competitive in there, and everyone takes massive pride in it. And it's definitely something that if you are slacking, lads are going to let you know that you need to improve this aspect of where you're coming at.
“A lot of lads have really bought in. The young fellas that come in now are just as strong as lads that are in there for the last five, six years.
“It's a testament to the academy and what they're doing in Limerick at the moment that these guys are coming in, and they're well able to hit the ground running straight away.”
It’s all well and good being King of the Gym (Casey believes only Sean Finn can rival him for that title), but that’s no guarantee you’ll perform on the pitch especially after missing two years of inter-county championship hurling.
Was Casey at all nervous he might struggle to get up to the pace when he played his first championship match in two seasons against Cork on April 17?
“Kind of - it’s going to be in the back of your head, absolutely,” he admits. “The match against Cork was my first since 2019, I only had the game against Offaly under my belt.
“But our training is as intense as anything. On any given day you could be marking Aaron Gillane or Seamus Flanagan inside in training, if you’re able to do it there you’ll be able to do it in championship.
“I was delighted the lads had the trust in me and I obviously showed well enough to get back in there, I was delighted.”
The Munster Final surely dispelled any doubts Casey might have had about his ability to hurl as forcefully as he did before his knee injuries.
Until a calf strain forced him off after 57 minutes he was one of the best players on the pitch, hurling up a storm at full-back in a match that was arguably hurled at a higher pace than any other in the modern era of the game.
“I haven’t had a chance to watch it all back on my own but I’ve watched the first fifteen minutes and you don’t realise when you’re in the middle of it how intense it is, you’re just going about your own business,” says Casey of the Munster Final.
“Those first ninety seconds, two minutes - you could just clip that and show it to people around the world, it was so intense. No matter where the ball was there were bodies everywhere fighting for it.
“Just the honesty of it was incredible, the physical condition teams are in to go for the seventy and for extra time - no team let up even in extra time, so the game has gone to a whole new level.
“Guys have dedicated themselves to this and there’s no stone left unturned. Everyone is in peak physical condition with dietitians, nutritionists, S&C - everyone is ticking all those boxes because if you don’t you’re nearly left behind.”
In a match of very fine margins, it was arguably Limerick’s superior strength and conditioning and greater ability to soak up physical punishment and come back for more that enabled them to pull clear of Clare in extra-time in the Munster Final.
That physical conditioning combined with a steely will to win means we haven’t seen this Limerick team out-worked in a championship hurling match since the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny.
“Potentially yeah, absolutely,” says Casey. “It’s something we pride ourselves on - sometimes it’s about getting down to the brass tacks and working and winning that ball. We love doing that.
“It doesn’t matter if we win the game by 20 points or by one point to no score - we love the battle and the intensity and working hard. I think we’ve put that stamp on our play when people come and play us they know they have to match that.”
It’s quite obvious from the way Casey goes about his business on the pitch that he relishes a good physical battle.
At 5ft 10in he’s relatively short for a full-back and is regularly pitted against full-forwards who are a few inches taller than him.
You wouldn’t be surprised if opposition managers felt a mis-match like this might be a way of unlocking the Limerick defence, but Casey has proven time and again he has a knack for spoiling and even dominating taller men under a high ball in much the same way that Kilkenny’s Tommy Walsh did back in the day.
“Yeah, the physical nature of it is what I love,” he says. “I've had decent battles over the years with a lot of taller lads. I grew up marking Kevin Downes in Na Piarsaigh. Another big man that would love the high ball in.
“It's just something that I've adapted to my game. There can be an awful lot of made about these things. But at the end of the day, timing is everything and being able to break that ball.
“Thankfully, I've got the best lads in Seán Finn and Barry Nash, and Dec (Hannon) and the boys in front to be able to mop up those breaks. It's never going to be a thing where 'I'll catch one, you catch one, I'll catch one, you catch one'. You're looking to break that ball as best you can and having the boys around to pick up those breaks.”
The best full-backs are those who read the play well and make the right decisions in terms of whether to hold their ground or rush to meet an opposition player bearing down on goal.
Casey showed all the right instincts in the Munster Final against Clare when he left his own man to intercept Shane O’Donnell who clearly had only one thing on his mind as he bore down on goal after 47 minutes.
Casey displayed great bravery to get his body in the way of a shot and prevent what might well have been a decisive goal for the Banner County.
“You've got to make a decision,” he says of that moment. “If you rush out there, you could leave an easy pass. And we work on that a lot. It is just about the timing of it.
“It goes back to when you're young - you've just got to put your body on the line, take one for the team and go on from there. I didn't know much about it.
“I just said he looked like he was going to strike, so I said I was going to throw myself there. And thankfully I got it. We went down the field and got a score from it, so it was a big turning point.”
Instinct played a big part in Casey’s block, but so did repetition.
Limerick coach Paul Kinnerk’s works tirelessly on recreating match-like scenarios in training, and overloads of forwards versus defenders that force defenders to make a decision like Casey did in the Munster Final is a very common drill.
“As always, you're going to work on these sort of scenarios,” he says.
“You're going to work on line breaks. Every team is doing it.
“And what best way to deal with them, and we would have had conversations with Nickie (Quaid) and Seánie (Finn), Richie (English), the boys in the fullback line, and all the boys.
“We would have had massive conversations around what's the best kind of way to try and play these out.
“Ask corner-forwards, full-forwards, wing-forwards coming through, what would you like us to do? And we'll do the opposite.
“Look, it's all instinct. You have to make that decision. Do you go? Do you stay? Fortunately, we just made the right one on the day.”
Strong as a bull, brave as a lion, and clever as a fox, Limerick look stronger than ever with Casey back patrolling the edge of the square.