Tuesday 27 June 2017

Finlay Bealham has come a long way since days of struggling to keep warm in an unheated house

Finlay Bealham: ‘I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Ever since coming to Connacht, it feels like home.’ Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Finlay Bealham: ‘I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Ever since coming to Connacht, it feels like home.’ Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Finlay Bealham, being an Australian, does a decent job of conjuring up images of what they consider to be extreme cold. If in this country we talk a lot about the weather, we are only trotting after our Antipodean friends, who become agitated if the mercury drops below 20-something. For them sunshine is the imperative caffeine kick to start the day.

So the next time you hear of a professional athlete declare they're "living the dream", think of Bealham and teammates, on the couch watching a movie, wrapped in duvets, huddled around the one electric radiator in a suburban Galway house devoid of central heating.

There were about five of them. The lock on the front door didn't work. The drill was to get up early and go training; get back quickly and get straight into bed in search of warmth.

"Yeah, that was bad," he says of winters past. "After a while, we got the (portable) radiator in the house so we'd put it in one room and we'd stay there. It was a good toughening-up period."

Indeed. And in the context of Bealham's career it was another planet. That career started in Canberra, in ACT, and along the way there have been a couple of forks in the road where he has been blessed to hitch a lift in the right direction.

The first was when he got knocked back by the Brumbies' Academy. Bealham went to a big rugby-playing school, and as he progressed there he found the union code taking over from its league cousin. Good enough to play for Australia Schools, if he wanted to stay on the representative ladder over there he needed a place in the Academy. And he didn't get one.

He wouldn't be the first in that part of the world to dial up his Irish heritage, and in fairness to him he didn't have to shake the family tree to see what fell out of it. His maternal grandmother is from Fermanagh, and - amazingly given the distance involved - he reckons there were eight or nine trips back there for family holidays before he moved to Ireland to play rugby.

Initially that journey started with sending over his show-reel to coaches Allen Clarke and Mike Ruddock, who gave him a try-out with the Ireland under 20s. He landed first into the arms of Clarke in the Ulster Academy. It worked insofar as he played in the under 20 Six Nations and went to a World Cup with that group, and most importantly it wasn't Canberra, where he would have had to continue training to be a PE teacher.

Still, Ulster didn't look like it was going to work out. Whereupon he got the second break of his career when Nigel Carolan gave him a shout and suggested a move to Connacht.

"I grabbed it with both hands," he says. "Ever since coming to Connacht, it feels like home. Obviously there was some settling in to do. I was in the middle of the Italy trip (under 20 World Cup) and got the offer. That was probably the last ditch, I'd say. After that, I didn't know what I was going to do. I was thinking of going back home or if I was going to stay. I had a couple of options but nothing as good as Connacht."

Once there, his development cracked on unchecked. A shift across the front row from loosehead to tight opened up all sorts of possibilities, not least a different shade of green.

"Myself and Denis (Buckley) had a few cuts off each other out there, and sometimes you have to take your medicine," he says. "And in my first season at tighthead I didn't have that many good days. I got to learn again. I think it was the Exeter game out here where we were under the pump. That's when you learn the most. I'm just learning on the go out there, but now I'm feeling really confident."

Five months ago Bealham signed a three-year contract to stay at the Sportsground. A few months after that he would be in Chicago, playing a positive part in history making. Five months earlier Joe Schmidt had given him his first cap, against Italy in the Six Nations. Two months down the line from there he was picking up a Guinness Pro12 medal with Connacht. A few weeks later he was on the plane to South Africa - another cap, in the second Test in Johannesburg - any by November he was nailed on in the Ireland matchday squad. Chicago was the highlight. Did he do a double take coming on in Soldier Field with Ireland 30-22 ahead and the All Blacks riding hard to catch them at the post?

"I had mixed emotions once I got the message from the coaches. I was clear-minded and confident because we'd had a great training week," he says. "The game is the easiest bit. You know all the roles; you back yourself and you've got great players around you. Awesome to be a part of it. I had about eight scrums in about half an hour."

The most important of those came with the set-piece in the corner that opened the door for Robbie Henshaw's insurance score. "Yeah, we had a move planned for that position on the pitch," he recalls. "My job is not to worry about what Robbie or Jamie (Heaslip) are doing at the back, just nail my side of the scrum and give a good platform for that side of the scrum. Looking back it's not overly perfect - my entry into the scrum there - but we did enough to get the ball to the back and give Jamie a good platform."

That will be the starting point in Toulouse today. When Connacht stunned everyone with their win there in December 2013 Bealham was playing for the province's A side against Bedford Blues. This afternoon he is part of a handy combination, along with Tom McCartney and Buckley, who challenge each other as much in the gaming world - Call of Duty is their chosen battlefield - as on the rugby pitch.

In the first round, in Galway, Connacht edged home by two points despite turning over twice as much ball - in fairness they had twice as much to play with - and having a few hairy moments at the scrum. Their challenge today is either to win or draw, in any fashion, or to take a bonus point in defeat while denying Toulouse any extras.

"They've a massive forward pack - they say the biggest in world rugby," Bealham claims. "We'll have our work cut out, especially up front, in the scrums. We watched the Wasps game at the weekend and every scrum on their ball, they're looking for penalties; on Wasps' ball they're looking to put the pressure on. We'll be looking to make sure we have that part of the game nailed on because, as we saw in Galway, if the scrum's not going well: three penalties, nine points. Especially away, nine point lead is tough, so we need to be nailed on."

And when it's all over he can fly home and go straight to his gaff, where the heating will already be on. The luxury of it.

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