The sky's the limit for young prop who is keen to impress
The Big Interview: Finlay Bealham
Published 06/11/2015 | 02:30
It was only over a year ago that Finlay Bealham graduated from the Connacht academy with just six replacement appearances for the first team to his name.
He has packed on an extra 14kg since then, totted up 31 caps for the province, made the difficult switch to tighthead, and was selected for an Emerging Ireland tour.
But the 24-year-old Canberra native wants to go with the flow again this year, and feels if he focuses on getting the simple things right, it will be another season of firsts in 2015-16.
His breakthrough last term all stemmed from Nathan White's elbow injury that plunged Connacht into a crisis of numbers in October. Bealham was given the opportunity to swap No 1 for No 3, and he duly obliged.
However, he never expected the season to go so well for him, and a call up to wear the green of Ireland in Tbilisi was completely out of the blue.
"I was a bit surprised to get the call. I was just focusing on my game with Connacht at the time. And when I got in I was very happy and very proud about getting the opportunity - the hard work I put in had paid off.
"I got a good bit of game-time over there too. It was a good experience, I was just happy to be a part of it," he said.
"The main thing for me this season, is just to concentrate on what I'm doing each day of the week here, and seeing where I can improve my own game. I don't want to look too far ahead."
Bealham took another step in the right direction when he signed a new two-year deal with the province in January. He will have to fight it out with Irish internationals in the meantime, with White and Rodney Ah You both tighthead options.
While in training he gets to scrummage opposite looseheads of the calibre of Denis Buckley and Ronan Loughney, he is likely to be utilised for his abilities on both sides of the scrum when required.
The former St Edmund's College student attributed his smooth transition to former forwards coach Dan MacFarland last year. MacFarland has since left, but Bealham knows he still has plenty of role models to help him build on his debut season as a professional.
"I only really started playing tighthead at the start of last season because Whitey was injured. So I just filled in there, but I really enjoyed it and I think it was a good move for me.
"I learned from the get-go. I hadn't got that much experience at tighthead so I was thrown in at the deep end a little bit. Then I was playing against seasoned professionals every week in the Pro12.
"In training I had the likes of Denis and Ronan opposite me, and it helped me learn quickly. Then we had good coaches too with Dan MacFarland and them, around me. So that was very beneficial.
"But it's very good to have someone like Nathan there. He performed really well at the World Cup and it's great to have him just for somebody to look up to. He is someone that I look up to a lot and try and base my game around.
"It's weird now because some of the younger guys ask me for advice, and it kind of feels like I was that guy not that long ago, I still am that guy really."
But Bealham has matured beyond recognition from the youngster who had no choice but to step into unfamiliar territory.
With his added experience, Connacht have more depth this term but they do have the on-going 16-game block to negotiate and it is something the players have had to keep in mind.
Pre-season was kicked up a few gears at the Sportsground, in preparation for a testing period for one of the Pro12's smallest squad. For Bealham, this year was an entirely different proposition, and he feels much more fit and able to build on the rigid foundation he laid last season.
"There was a lot more running during pre-season because the weight was already there. In my last year of the academy I weighed about 109kg and now I'm about 123kg so I have gained a lot.
"But it has been really beneficial to me, because I feel much better in the scrum and you feel a lot better in the contact area. The extra weight is no problem.
"It wasn't that much of a change in diet. At the time I was just eating, constantly eating. But now it's all about maintaining and then focusing on levels of performance."
Connacht have made a near-perfect start to the season, and Bealham has featured in every game so far.
He knows that Connacht need to keep on winning because it is only going to get more difficult with the internationals returning to the Pro12 teams. But Connacht have the massive additions of White and centre Robbie Henshaw back in their fold too.
Bealham says that, if the squad is managed correctly and everyone can buy into the Connacht system, the good times can keep rolling in Galway, and they could be onto something special.
"It is going to be a tough 16-game block and the squad depth will really be tested. So everyone is going to be used now.
"Therefore everyone needs to be used to the game we play and the Connacht systems. Everyone coming in needs to be confident that they can do what's best for the jersey."