Thursday 22 March 2018

'Giving up rugby league was a gamble but it paid off'

The Big Interview: Prop making big strides after switch of codes, move from Oz and then shift across scrum

Finlay Bealham hails Dan McFarland for helping him switch to tightead (David Maher / SPORTSFILE)
Finlay Bealham hails Dan McFarland for helping him switch to tightead (David Maher / SPORTSFILE)

Daragh Small

Who would have thought that tighthead props would be the professional game's hottest properties?

Irish rugby has often passed the torch from one man to another. It went from Peter Clohessy to John Hayes and then on to Mike Ross on the international front.

But suddenly Connacht seems to be blessed with tighthead talent. Ronan Loughney became the first of the current batch of No 3s from these parts to play for Ireland, Rodney Ah You joined in on the fun in Argentina last summer, while Nathan White donned the green shirt for the first time last weekend against the English Saxons.

Now an Australian-born recruit is coming through the ranks and chasing a rapid rise to the top. Finlay Bealham made the difficult move from loosehead at the beginning of the season and despite just two starts he is fast becoming a firm favourite at the Sportsground.

Growing up in Canberra, Bealham's first love was rugby league. The 13-man game offered him more of a chance to hone his skills with the oval ball but he was destined for an early retirement from the league code.

He attended the famed St Edmund's College in the Australian capital, and on the fields where Aussie greats George Gregan and Matt Giteau once plied their trade, the 16-year old was given an option.

"It was a massive rugby union school. There was lots of talented footballers that came out of there and a lot of the guys that went on to play for the Brumbies," Bealham explains.

"A lot of guys are playing all over Super Rugby at the moment so it was a great school for union.

"But we had to keep it a secret from the school for a couple of years that we were playing rugby league. There was a good few of us doing it - we would play rugby union on a Saturday and go back up and play rugby league on a Sunday."

Bealham quickly began to thrive in the 15-man game as well, but after selection of the Australian schools team in 2009, he was faced with a tough decision.

The expected slot in the ACT Brumbies academy never materialised, so he was forced to look to further afield to chase his dream of becoming a pro.


"I hadn't been getting many selections in major squads and it was an honour to get picked on the Australian schools team," he says.

"Giving up league two years before was a bit of a gamble, but it paid off thankfully.

"But then I didn't even get a look-in in the Brumbies Academy, so that's why I looked abroad. I was just looking for an opportunity.

"I ended up getting a trial with the Ireland U-20s through my Irish heritage and then I was up at Ulster for a bit.

"But the move to Connacht came about after the U-20 World Cup in Italy when I got contacted by Nigel Carolan."

Bealham didn't choose Ireland for the weather, though. He was always reminded of his Irish blood growing up - his mother's family are Ferris from Fermanagh - and the chance to check out his family tree while chasing a career really appealed to him.

As it turned out he is no relation to Stephen Ferris, but ex-British heavyweight boxing champion Gordon Ferris is from the same clan. Linking up with his family has been a huge bonus for Finlay, he says.

"My granny Ferris passed away back in 2012 but when I first came she used to ring me all of the time. I kept in real good contact with her and I don't think a day went past where I didn't talk to her," he says.

Last season Bealham spent much of his time at loosehead and attributes his seamless transition into the tight position to forwards coach Dan McFarland.

"Dan is very good. He has definitely improved my game leaps and bounds. I just continued to keep learning off him and from everyone around me to better myself," he says.

Now in his fourth season at the Sportsground the 23-year old has recently put pen to paper on a new two-year contract as he looks become a more established member of the first-team squad.

In such a competitive position he has amassed 17 appearances over the last two seasons and is obviously held in high regard by head coach Pat Lam.

Being Irish-qualified is a plus, while learning his skills from White and Ah You and battling Loughney and Denis Buckley in training has hugely improved him.

Bealham is enjoying life at the moment; rugby is number one but he has plans for life after the game.

"I did the year of study before I came over that's when I got my certificate for personal training. Then I was looking to maybe become a PE teacher or something similar after that," he says.

He has had to grow up fast and despite living on the opposite side of the world Bealham keeps in regular contact with his parents: they were very supportive in him moving to the far side of the world to play rugby.

"My family could get over once or twice in a season. It's an expensive flight but I get home as well during the break and spend a lot of the off-season out there," he says.

"But when my family comes over we go up to Enniskillen if I get some time off.

"It is good to know that there is family still around and even though I am away from home there are relations just up the road."

Irish Independent

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