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Dublin: 0 °C Sunday 18 March, 2018

Bealham has come long way from Canberra and freezing-cold Renmore

The 24-year-old Connacht prop won his first Ireland cap this season.

Updated at 12.30

FIRSTLY, FINLAY BEALHAM just wants to clarify that he’s alright after the incident with the bench last weekend.

As Marius Mitrea blew the final whistle of Connacht’s semi-final win over Glasgow, signalling that the western province would be playing in their first-ever final, Bealham was celebrating on the sideline with the rest of the replaced players.

Finlay Bealham celebrates at the end of the match Bealham has been impressive for Connacht this season. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He jumped onto the somewhat rickety subs’ bench in sheer joy only to take a swift fall and land square on his arse. Of course, the video spread all over Twitter and even to friends back in his native Australia.

So when he sits down in the Sportsground after Connacht training and you ask him how he is, he sheepishly smiles and shakes his head.

“I feel good. I had a bit of a fall after the game! It’s all good mate, I was just excited. It was an exciting moment and I got a bit carried away and jumped on the bench. I’ve learned my lesson now so I’ll stay away from it!”

Bealham is a laidback individual, although his rise to win a first Ireland cap this season demonstrates that his work ethic when it comes to rugby is unquestionable.

The 24-year-old has only been playing tighthead prop for the last season and a half, but with Nathan White injured he has nailed down the number three shirt in Connacht. His place in the Ireland squad to travel to South Africa was no surprise either.

Now set for the Guinness Pro12 final against Leinster in Edinburgh this evening, Bealham says his journey has been a rollercoaster.

“From where I was a couple of years ago to getting ready to play a Pro12 final,” says Bealham, “it’s something you might not have thought would happen.”

Born into a non-rugby family – who nonetheless have supported his career passionately – Bealham’s love for the oval ball game developed in school, and he played both union and league up until the age of 16.

He was a good enough league player to feature for the Canberra Raiders in the Harold Matthews Cup, an U16 competition in New South Wales that is broadcast on television.

Finlay Bealham Bealham is comfortable with Connacht's style of play. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Even now, Bealham feels his league background is beneficial. He’s particularly mobile for a prop, with his comfort on the ball and agility in the defensive line standing out as strengths.

“The biggest thing I found was that you get those offload skills working in league, even though I probably don’t get too many of them now, but you still have it,” says Bealham.

“The tackling as well, the league hardens you up. You have to make one-on-one tackles and a lot of contacts, so you get adjusted to that from a young age.”

League is huge in Australia and Bealham loved it, but being schooled at St. Edmund’s College in the Griffith suburb of Canberra meant union was eventually king. The school’s alumni include Matt Giteau, George Gregan, the Fainga’a brothers and Robbie Coleman.

Bealham’s balancing act was halted when he reached the school’s First XV.

“I played dual code all the way up until then, trying to hide it really, but the older you got the heavier the collisions got and you weren’t able to back up as much playing union on a Saturday and league on the Sunday,” explains the Ireland international.

“I stopped that after I was 16 and focused on union.”

Dedicating himself to the loosehead prop position, Australia Schools honours followed for Bealham as he represented his native country in 2009 fixtures against Tonga and New Zealand, before missing out on the end-of-year tour to the UK.

He didn’t get a call from the Australia U20s the following year and with no place for him in the Brumbies academy either, Bealham looked to his Irish roots for a way to pursue his professional rugby ambition.

Finlay Bealham Bealham, sporting a cracking hairdo, in Ireland U20 action in 2011. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I just knew what I wanted to do and I knew I just needed an opportunity,” says Bealham. “I probably wasn’t going to get it back home so I did look abroad and I’m thankful I did because it’s turned out really well and I’m just enjoying life.”

Bealham’s grandmother on his mother’s side is from Enniskillen and the family spent many a holiday in County Fermanagh during his youth.

“Summer in Australia is obviously Christmas time here and we always used to come here at Christmas time, so we missed the summer back home!

“My mum’s side of the family, we weren’t able to see them as much as we’d like so we’d come when we had school holidays. It’s a long old trip but we have some really good memories.”

As such, Bealham knew he was qualified to play for Ireland and, with the help of his father, put together a CV and some clips to send to then Ireland U20 coaches Mike Ruddock and Allen Clarke asking for a trial.

The response was positive and suddenly Bealham found himself upping roots and landing in Belfast to join the Ulster academy set-up on that trial basis, as well as throwing himself into the fray with the Ireland U20s.

Playing his club rugby with Belfast Harlequins, Bealham was capped twice by the U20s in the 2011 Six Nations and then twice again at the Junior World Championship in Italy, that squad also including the likes of Iain Henderson, Kieran Marmion, Jordi Murphy, JJ Hanrahan, Eoin McKeon and Tiernan O’Halloran.

“When I came home from Italy that summer, I got a call from Nigel Carolan asking if I wanted to come down to the Connacht set-up,” says Bealham. “I haven’t looked back since. It’s been five years since I got here but it doesn’t feel like that, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

With the six-month stint in Belfast having kick started his time in Ireland, Bealham made his home in Connacht under Carolan and set about turning himself into a genuinely professional player.

Finlay Bealham and Marcus Walsh with John Ryan Bealham playing for the Connacht Eagles in 2012. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He says the opportunity Connacht’s academy players have to train with the senior team from the very beginning was huge for him, allowing him to toughen up further and understand what he needed to work on. Off the pitch, it wasn’t always easy but Bealham wasn’t complaining.

“Myself and Kieran Marmion came at the same time and we both lived in a house up in Renmore and we didn’t have heating for the whole of winter.

“I was 19 and he was 18, our first experience of living here in Galway, but to see where we are now and where we’ve come from it’s nice to look back on it. I have heating in my house now, which is nice in the winter!”

By now a Corinthians clubman, Bealham’s senior Connacht debut didn’t come until 2014, when he came off the bench in the closing minutes of a win away to Zebre.

There were a total of 26 appearances for Pat Lam’s side over the course of the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons, but rather remarkably Bealham had started only two professional rugby games before the current campaign.

It was Dan McFarland, the former Connacht forwards coach who is now with Glasgow, who initiated Bealham’s switch to the tighthead side, one that has seen him prosper.

“I had always played loosehead right from the start and made the transition to tighthead about a year and a half ago,” says Bealham. “Tighthead is my preferred position now. I found my feet there and I can obviously still cover loosehead if called upon but I see myself as a tighthead.

“At the end of Pat’s first season we got brought in for player reviews and they wanted me to gain a bit of weight. I put it on pretty easy, eating a lot and getting into the gym a lot.

“I gained about 12 or 13kg in a short space of time, so after than I just concentrated on leaning out a bit. I switched to tighthead and the extra weight helps in the scrum and the contact area. I like eating so it wasn’t too bad, and lots of weights, which I like too!”

Niyi Adeolokun and Finlay Bealham The prop is enjoying Connacht's squad spirit. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Even with the additional bulk taking him up to his current fighting weight of around 122kg, Bealham has continued to look entirely comfortable in open, high-tempo games that require ball-handling skills.

He says Connacht’s 2-4-2 shape is particularly helpful for a tight-five forward, providing a framework that players can so easily slip into.

“I have my set role and we’ve been practicing it for a long time. You might get tired out on the field and it’s second nature for you to go into your role.

“We obviously throw the ball around a bit as well, which is good. You can express yourself and we have tight forwards throwing offloads or out-the-back passes, it’s what we train during the week. We’re comfortable with the ball in hand.”

Bealham’s role in this incredible Connacht season brought him back to international attention too and his first senior call-up came late in January of this year.

Having represented Emerging Ireland in 2015, Bealham admits playing for Ireland at senior level was “in the back of my mind” but stresses that he hadn’t fixed it as a clear goal, instead preferring to be as effective as he could be for Connacht.

The call came from Joe Schmidt after Bealham had not been named in the initial Six Nations squad.

“Marty Moore got injured in January and we had just played Enisei, the Russian team, in Europe. I was out at dinner with a few of the lads and I got a call from Joe.

“I ran out of the restaurant and was chatting to him. I was into camp that Monday, so it all happened very quick but that’s the way it is. You get an opportunity and you’ve just got to take it.”

Finlay Bealham Bealham made his Ireland debut during the Six Nations. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He enjoyed working with the likes of Mike Ross, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong in Ireland camp and says the atmosphere amongst the front row union at Carton House is very open and positive.

His opportunity to wear the green shirt came in the win over Italy in Dublin, when he got 15 minutes to impress and relished every one of them. A clever inside pass to Simon Zebo was perhaps the highlight, showing his comfort on the ball.

“If you’re only getting a little bit of time off the bench you’ve got to make it count,” says Bealham. “You’re representing Connacht and what we’ve been doing here, so hopefully I’ll get a few more opportunities down the line.”

Bealham is part of Schmidt’s 32-man squad to travel to South Africa next month and he has certainly looked like a more confident player since earning his Ireland debut.

That side of his career is on hold for just one more weekend, however, as Bealham focuses in on helping Connacht to finish this sensational season on a high. For him, the camaraderie of Lam’s squad has been the most enjoyable aspect.

One expression of that collective bond is the group of online gamers that has formed at Connacht.

“I like a bit of online gaming, Call of Duty and that,” explains Bealham. “I’ve set up a nice gaming room and there’s a few lads here who are gamers. ‘The Freak’ Tom McCartney, Denis Buckley, there’s a good few others.

“We have a lot of craic over the headsets so it’s a bit of fun. Very competitive but fun.”

Bealham confirms that he has “exchanged details” with Irish rugby gaming master Mike Ross, but the pair of props are yet to play online together. Again, that can wait until next month and South Africa.

Finlay Bealham celebrates after he scored his sides fourth try Bealham celebrates a 'meat pie' against Munster this season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Bealham’s only thoughts now are on ensuring he does his bit for team-mates that feel like brothers to him.

“A good day at the office would be if, as a forward pack, we nail our jobs – which would be scrum, lineout attack, maul defence, and giving the backs every opportunity to play off quick ball. If we do that, hopefully, we will have a good chance of winning.

“I might have a few people watching on from Australia, the family will be watching and a few friends as well. I also gained a few fans with my fall from the bench.”

The rest of the time, Bealham has been moving upwards.

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