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'It's an exciting time. There's a great buzz around Galway and within the camp'

Back in Connacht green, Finlay Bealham is relishing the prospect of running out at the Sportsground again this afternoon.

HOLIDAY SEASON IN Galway, and Connacht are back home again. There’s no shortage of cheer out west these days, with good reason too, and a capacity crowd is expected at the Sportsground this afternoon intent on kickstarting the festivities. 

Andy Friend’s men returned from their South Africa safari buoyed by nine match points, and as attention reverts back to Challenge Cup matters with the visit of Perpignan later [KO 3pm], this is a golden opportunity for the province to continue on that upward trajectory.

Finlay Bealham Back in Connacht green: Finlay Bealham is ready to go. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Perhaps it is too early to say if Connacht have the capacity to course success on two fronts this term, but they remain on target for the Pro14 play-offs heading towards the Christmas inter-pros, and you can be sure Europe remains firmly on the agenda.

Spending 14 days and nights in each other’s company in South Africa has clearly brought the group closer, tightening bonds within the dressing room and adding to that team culture Friend has helped cultivate since his summer arrival.

The excitement and energy off the pitch has transferred onto it, with performances and results improving week-on-week, and there is renewed anticipation in the province after a difficult first year away from the Pat Lam era.

Friend must be commended for his role in that, a highly-likeable and humble Australian who has firmly bought into the environment, becoming part of the community, and was this week joined in Galway by the rest of his family for Christmas. 

He’ll be hoping his much-changed side can extend Connacht’s winning run to four games against Perpignan, who have endured a wretched season to date and are almost certain to be relegated, having lost all 11 of their Top 14 games.

Connacht’s hopes of progression from Pool 3 rest on the outcome of this December double-header, with the province left with work to do after their defeat at Sale Sharks in round two.

But given the fact Perpignan have travelled without half their first team, including Paddy Jackson, these back-to-back games against the French side appear, on paper at least, eminently capable of yielding another two important victories.

While Friend has made changes of his side, shuffling his pack and ensuring those who put in major shifts in South Africa are given time to recuperate, the hosts’ intentions are clear in the selection of Ireland trio Bundee Aki, Finlay Bealham and Quinn Roux.

Aki makes a surprise return in midfield after it was previously suggested he would miss this block of games to go back to New Zealand to get married, while Bealham comes back into the front row for his first Connacht appearance since October.

“My last game at the Sportsground was against Bordeaux in round one so it has been a while,” Bealham tells The42.

“I can’t wait to get back out there on Saturday and pull on the Connacht jersey again, because the squad is gaining a lot of momentum.

Finlay Bealham The prop in training this week. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“The lads are in great spirits, they’re all rocking these new tans from South Africa and complaining about the cold weather back home. They had a great time and everyone is looking forward to getting back out in front of the fans again.”

While Connacht were in South Africa, Bealham was back in the Ireland set-up as he won his eighth and ninth caps against Italy and USA, 18 months after last pulling on the green jersey.

The tighthead spoke openly in the build-up to the USA Test about the tweaks he has made to his training regime and diet, to ensure he has the energy and dynamism to offer more around the park throughout the 80 minutes.

That greater attention of detail has helped Bealham reach peak physical condition, as evidenced in some of his powerful and influential performances out west this season, leading to a November squad call-up from Joe Schmidt.

Now back in Connacht colours, the 27-year-old is understandably keen to continue in that vein, starting this afternoon as he makes his 115th appearance for the club in the front row alongside captain Dave Heffernan and Peter McCabe. 

“I had a week off last week and you don’t get too many weeks off, but I’m raring to go again,” he says. “It is a great time, an exciting time, but I’m just taking it week-by-week, looking to make 1% improvements each time.

It was great to get the call into the Irish squad, an honour, and I was able to learn a lot in camp. And with Connacht we’ve been playing some really good rugby as well, which helps. It’s an exciting time, I’m really enjoying my rugby at the moment and I think it’s showing on the pitch.

The international break, coupled with Connacht’s trip south of the equator, means there has been a four-week gap between home games in Galway, the province’s last run out at the Sportsground being their Pro14 win over Dragons on 3 November.

It comes as no great surprise, therefore, to hear tickets have been selling quickly for this Saturday afternoon European tie, particularly as it marks the start of a busy and crunch period in the fixture schedule, with Ulster and Munster visiting Galway either side of Christmas.

Connacht’s position in the pool — second with four points, six behind Sale and two ahead of Bordeaux and today’s opponents — renders this round three clash as must-win, with Friend not hiding away from that fact in the build-up.

“The home games are the ones you want to be putting your best foot forward,” Bealham, who recently signed a two-year contract extension, continues.

“I know Perpignan, they’re sitting at the bottom of the Top 14 table, but if you look closely they’ve got five or six bonus points. They’re running teams close so no doubt it’s going to be a close game.

Finlay Bealham Bealham started Ireland's November Test win over USA. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Just watching them during the week, they’ve got some humongous forwards and they’re going to be coming and targeting us in that area. But we’ve had a really good week and there’s a great buzz around Galway and within the camp.

“Something we’ve really focused on is our team culture and Friendy has really brought some excitement in terms of that team culture. The lads are coming in on a Monday morning and everyone’s excited and eager to train and get better.

“Everyone in each position is pushing and pushing to get better and that builds depth. It’s making everyone better and I think the results are showing that.”

While the return of three internationals adds major experience to Connacht’s starting XV, Friend has also handed opportunities to academy centre Kieran Joyce, who will make his debut alongside Bundee Aki, while Joe Maksymiw is rewarded with his first start.

It promises to be a memorable occasion for those players, but even into his fifth season with Connacht, that feeling of running out in front of the Clan Terrace never gets old for Bealham, especially at this time of year.

“Everyone is at home, everyone is talking about these games,” he adds. “It’s such an important time of year but really enjoyable. 

“It has been a long time for the players, has been a long time for the coaches and a long time for the fans for a game at the Sportsground, so it is going to be a great occasion on Saturday.

“I can’t wait to lace the boots up and make that walk out.” 

Connacht:

15. Darragh Leader
14. Cian Kelleher
13. Kieran Joyce
12. Bundee Aki
11. Matt Healy
10. David Horwitz
9. James Mitchell

1. Peter McCabe
2. Dave Heffernan (captain)
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Joe Maksymiw
5. Quinn Roux
6. Eoghan Masterson
7. Colby Fainga’a
8. Robin Copeland.

Replacements:

16. Shane Delahunt
17. Matthew Burke
18. Dominic Robertson McCoy
19. Gavin Thornbury
20. James Connolly
21. Caolin Blade
22. Conor Fitzgerald
23. Kyle Godwin.

Perpignan:

15. Jonathan Bousquet (captain)
14. Tima Fainga’anuku
13. Pierre Lucas
12. Paul Marty
11. Eroni Sau
10. Enzo Selponi
9. Sadek Degmache

1. Quentin Walcker
2. Raphael Carbou
3. Nicolas Lemaire
4. Yoann Vivalda
5. Berend Botha
6. Johan Van Heerden
7. Pierre Reynaud
8. Michael Faleafa

Replacements:

16. Manu Leiataua
17. Kevin Tougne
18. Sylvain Charlet
19. Alban Roussel
20. Edoardo Iachizzi
21. Tom Ecochard
22. Afusipa Taumoepeau
23. Julien Farnoux. 

Referee: Karl Dickson [RFU].

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Ryan Bailey

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