Friday 24 November 2017

'I faced the haka as a schoolboy. . . it'd be special to do it again'

Versatile Aussie-born prop eyes another Ireland call as he develops into key man for Connacht

Finlay Bealham is hoping to feature for Ireland when they take on the All Blacks next month. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Finlay Bealham is hoping to feature for Ireland when they take on the All Blacks next month. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Daragh Small

In the week that Bundee Aki and Ultan Dillane dominated the headlines with their contract extensions, it's easy to forget that another prized asset pledged his allegiance to the Connacht cause earlier in the campaign.

Player retention is one of the fundamental building blocks that helped Connacht claim their first Pro12 title last term, and securing Finlay Bealham - a key player in the game-plan - could be a crucial piece of business.

The prop's versatility and durability are almost unparalleled in the league, and he has slotted in seamlessly at No 3 since international tightheads Nathan White and Rodney Ah You left the province.

Bealham's improvement earned him an Ireland debut in the Six Nations, and now he has two caps to his name after the tour to South Africa during the summer.

Becoming Connacht's first-choice tighthead didn't force the blinkers on either, and when first-choice loosehead Denis Buckley picked up a serious knee injury in September, the 25-year-old made a seamless switch back into the No 1 shirt.

Dangerous in the loose, skilled with ball in hand and solid at scrum-time, Bealham is crucial to Connacht's plans, in the long term as well as the short term. The future looks very bright for the Australian-born prop.

"It's a massive year after we had an excellent season last year, winning the Pro12," says Bealham.

"We are process-orientated and each week we look to our process and look to nail everything during the week, and then the results takes care of itself at the weekend.

"I don't look too far into the future, I just concentrate on the moment. It would be pretty foolish to look too far ahead. I just want to take it day by day and try and do my role as well as I can for the team.

"I will do my best in whatever position I am playing ,whether that's starting or coming off the bench - I will certainly put my best foot forward for whatever I am doing."

Bealham started out as an impact player who was thrown into games to wreak havoc in the front-row.

But as the injuries caught up with Connacht last season, and Bealham stayed the distance, he swapped over to wear the No 3 shirt.

The former rugby league man was the only Connacht player to feature in all 31 games, between the Pro12 and Challenge Cup last year.

It was a sensational season, and at the tail end he was picked to travel with Ireland to South Africa for the summer tour.

"I loved the tour, it was great and I had a really good experience. There were lots of great lads and good coaches," he says. "Guys likes Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong and Mike Ross were great with helping me on scrum stuff.

Pointers

"The coaches help you as much as they can and they are very good. Greg Feek helped me a lot with my scrummaging. Guys give you little pointers here and there and that information is so valuable, especially going into Test matches.

"I would love to be involved against the All Blacks. The only way I can do that is concentrating on my performance week in, week out for Connacht. I would just be looking to improve as much as I can during that time.

"It wouldn't be a box ticked per say, I just love representing Ireland. Hopefully I get more chances and every time I do I will try and put my best foot forward.

"I faced the haka playing schoolboys' rugby back in 2009 but I haven't faced it at international level. I have certainly seen it so often growing up, on TV, so that would be special to experience."

Versatility is often the undoing of many good rugby players when they cannot lock down a definite position. But Bealham thrives on it, and it was one of the driving forces that led to his first caps for Ireland.

He has had to switch between tighthead and loosehead again in recent weeks but he enjoys the challenge, and he wants to keep adding new skills to his game.

"It's all good as long as you're getting game-time. It was very unfortunate for Denis Buckley to get injured but I am happy to swap in there, and the coaches believe I can do the job," he explains.

"It's like with anything, if you haven't done it for a while you get a bit rusty with it. I have been working hard during the weeks on technical things, which makes me feel a lot more confident when I switch.

"It probably doesn't look like it's different from the outside looking in. But there are a lot of alterations with your feet and with your arm and your bind and everything, the pressure is coming in different ways too.

"I don't think about whether I am a better player or not this season. I just like to concentrate on my game from week to week. There are work-ons from every game and you try and fix those bad ones, and you try and nail down your core skills. I look to improve after every game.

"In pre-season I was just working on my scrum-shape - I had work-ons from South Africa, and I just looked to amend them. I had a few bits and pieces in my tackles, there were a few technical things too.

"I did a lot of weights and fitness to keep me in shape. It was a tough pre-season and I am glad to be into games now.

"I am where I was last year weight-wise. You still try to improve in the gym and lose a bit of fat and gain more muscle. But I am very happy with the weight I am at the moment.

"I am always trying to keep the skin folds down but I feel fit now, and getting the game fitness in makes you feel good."

Irish Independent

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