Canberra native ready for battle to be leading tighthead
New voices and fresh game-plan have given Ireland international Finlay Bealham a lift ahead of new season
Irish Rugby has come a long way since the advent of professionalism, and in 2017 it's seems nonsensical to suggest that Ireland would have once struggled to fill the No 3 jersey with quality and quantity.
Paul Wallace took over from Gary Halpin as the lynchpin of the Irish scrum for the early years, before John Hayes assumed the mantle after the 1999 Rugby World Cup.
The Munster tighthead soldiered on to amass more than a century of caps for his country and Mike Ross was the next prop to be thrown in the firing line.
But now the landscape has shifted dramatically and Ireland can count on the services of British & Irish Lions star Tadhg Furlong, up-and-coming Leinster prospect Andrew Porter, Munster's John Ryan and Connacht's Finlay Bealham.
The latter is of Australian descent but after switching from loosehead in his formative years as a professional, Bealham is helping to make Connacht's pack one of the most feared and technically brilliant in Europe.
The Canberra native had only made two replacement appearances against Italy and South Africa until he was part of an Ireland team that made history in beating the All Blacks for the first time, in Chicago in November 2016.
Now 26, Bealham has played seven times for Ireland and has experienced his first tour abroad with the team, and that trip to the USA and Japan last summer whetted the appetite massively.
"I had been to Japan when I was in school back home in 2008. It was a tournament where they picked a team from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and France," said Bealham.
"But this was my first time in Tokyo anyway and I really enjoyed it. It was like a totally different culture.
"We went to watch the sumo lads training - it's ridiculous what they do. They are up at first light and training for hours on end. It's a tough life for them, but it's good to get an insight into other sports.
"It's great going on tours like that, we had a few young lads, mixed in with a few of the senior boys. Working with all the new faces was great and obviously working with all the coaches too.
"I get to keep adding to my game with that high level of coaching that is there. It's so valuable, especially for the specialist position that I play in.
"Tadhg Furlong has been amazing and playing well for a number of years now, John Ryan has been doing the same for Munster and young Andrew Porter has come on the scene as well.
"He's a serious unit. I always get told that there was a time when Ireland only had a couple of options at tighthead. But it's good to see that they have the depth there now with lads pushing through, it's great for Irish rugby."
And it's great for Connacht Rugby to see their prized tighthead pitting his wits against the best this country has to offer.
Bealham only made six replacement appearances during his debut season in 2013-14, but now he has 85 games under his belt between the PRO14 and Europe.
Last weekend he picked up his second yellow card playing for Connacht, but he remains excited to improve his personal displays this season.
"I had a month off after the Ireland tour, so I got back to pre-season around the end of August.
"After the lads finished the last game against Northampton they got five or six weeks off so they were about three or four weeks ahead of me when I came in," said Bealham.
"The international guys did a couple of weeks of conditioning with the new S&C team. They put us through our paces a bit, doing lots of weights, circuits and running, it was a tough few weeks but it's good to be back playing rugby now."
The S&C team aren't the only thing to have changed in the Sportsground for 2017-18, with Kieran Keane in as the new head coach, Nigel Carolan bumped up to backs coach and Peter Wilkins the defence coach.
Forwards coach Jimmy Duffy is the only part of last year's main coaching team that is still in place, and Bealham says that the players are enjoying working in a new environment.
"Change is always good, all the lads have a bit of something extra in their step now.
"There is a lot of new players as well and it's given everyone a lot of energy," said Bealham. "It's great to see and hopefully it can translate to performances on the field now. Everyone is energetic and excited. That is what you like to see coming back from a few weeks off.
"We had a tough year last year, the year before that we won the PRO12 and we were just feeling on top of the world. But things didn't work out as well for us.
"However, there is great character in the squad we have and we have so many talented players. It's just a matter of keeping everyone fit and it should lead to success on the field again.
"At Connacht we pride ourselves on having a bit of attacking flair and being able to play from anywhere. Kieran Keane has made things a bit simpler now and we are backing the lads' skill and execution.
"If we can keep everyone fit and everyone pushing for places, it will lift everyone's game. We are all excited for the new season and we will hope for the best.
"We have a good start in our conference and hopefully we can build on that with Europe only around the corner now too."