Tuesday 25 June 2019

Bealham and Connacht drive on to a better place than last season

Finlay Bealha has signed a new deal with Connacht
Finlay Bealha has signed a new deal with Connacht
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

A week ago against Leinster we were looking at a Connacht side scratching around desperately for a chink of daylight. Locked out of their own gaff, they looked the picture of frustration at the end of it: well beaten without a bonus point, down to 13 men and with a disciplinary hearing to follow.

With a trip to Belfast looming this weekend, it presented the prospect of back-to-back defeats going into Saturday's Challenge Cup opener against Bordeaux.

Roll on to Friday night and you could factor in a freakish feel to the early loss of Kieran Marmion and Tiernan O'Halloran - both gone inside six minutes. And yet it had the happiest of endings for a side who are now three wins from six and playing decent rugby. None more so than tighthead Finlay Bealham.

The Aussie hasn't featured in Joe Schmidt's plans since coming off the bench against Japan 16 months ago, a tour where he might have hoped to be the starting tighthead instead of third choice behind John Ryan and Andrew Porter.

After a solid start to the season, he was excellent on Friday night against Ulster, giving Andy Warwick - on the occasion of his 101st cap - a horrendous time. It was a mystery how referee Andrew Brace didn't bin the Ulster loosehead. Bealham was relentless, which gives comfort to Schmidt as he builds depth for the World Cup.

"Yeah, the end goal is to get back in the Irish squad," says Bealham. "It's pretty clichéd but you have to look at the here and now and I knew coming into the start of this season that we'd be up against some quality teams with international front-rows, so it would be a good opportunity for me to put my best foot forward and hopefully get a look-in at some point for the November series. I'll just try and continue the good start and see what it brings."

On Friday night, it brought a shower of scrum penalties, crowned with a penalty try. It also brought - twice - what looked like an extremely dangerous manoeuvre when Bealham literally was driven into a complete flip. With Warwick having collapsed and Quinn Roux still scrummaging for his life, Bealham was the meat in the sandwich.

"We have a big emphasis on our back five to keep pushing so when he (Warwick) went down there was kind of nowhere for me to go - so I went with the pressure and ended up doing that somersault.

"It was a bit weird but it's not the first time that's happened. It was all good. We came into the game wanting to use our scrum as a weapon and I think we did a pretty good job."

It wasn't confined to the scrummaging. Seán O'Brien was man of the match with a huge defensive performance, and both Paul Boyle and Ultan Dillane were instrumental in taking the game to Ulster on every play. Given the loss of key men in Marmion and O'Halloran, it reflected really well on Connacht's self-confidence to plough ahead regardless.

"It wasn't ideal losing the two boys early and then Tom Farrell going as well," Bealham says. "We were down a bit to the bare bones after that and I think Colby Fainga'a was warming up to come on out on the wing because Niyi (Adeolokun) was struggling a bit. But look we dug deep and I think it's something we can be proud of. When things weren't going to script we got on with it and fronted up for each other. It was super character."

Closing the door on the 58-year wait for a win in Belfast was the headline to the story. The subtext, however, is that Connacht are far more competitive than last year's model.

Three from six are not stellar stats but only against Leinster did they not take something from the game which, in any league competition, is key to being part of the business end of the competition.

Keeping that level of efficiency at the set-piece - their lineout returned 14 from 15 throws - is fundamental to that continuing.

The cloud is their penalty count (16 conceded against Ulster and 15 last weekend against Leinster) but if they can put manners on that, and get a break on the injury front - none of the casualties in Belfast are long-term - they'll continue pretty much as they started.

And a fit-looking Finlay Bealham will find himself back in the international mix.

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