Opinions vary on all-weather pitches, be it their authenticity or the increased risk of injuries to players as against insurance of a fast track unaffected by the vagaries of winter. But their advancement continues unabated, and no team has seemed more eager to adopt one than Connacht, who have long since adopted a higher tempo game.
Now in his 10th season at Connacht, for whom he has played 176 times, Finlay Bealham could scarcely conceal his excitement this week over the prospect of beginning a new era on their new state-of-the-art pitch.
“We get a lot of rain and wind here and the pitch can get buggered up by November,” as he put it in his own inimitable way. “But now we can play our brand of rugby all year around and it’s something we’re really excited about.
“We have great footballers, natural footballers in the squad. So, the fact that now we can play our brand of rugby all year round will be excellent. We’re looking forward to the next few weeks and playing our brand of rugby this Friday.”
After three defeats away, Bealham is also enthused by the prospect of playing in front of a big Friday night crowd at the Sportsground.
“We have the best fans in the world regardless of whether we win, lose or draw, patting your backs when you come off. They know the hard work we put in. Even if we don’t get the result, they give you a handshake or say hello. And when you win, they’re ecstatic and through the roof, the whole room is buzzing. So, the amount of people here, it feels like a 50,00-seater at times, screaming with every decision, the crowd erupting. We get so much energy from them.
“And I suppose not having them for three weeks, we’ve been away, it’s going to be surreal. There is a real buzz on Friday, it’s an interpro. The crowd are going to be hot and making a lot of noise. We have some of the best fans in the world. It’s unreal. We’re blessed to have them.”
Nonetheless, like most home crowds, the noise levels will be influenced by how events unfold on the pitch, and Bealham acknowledges that Connacht have to give them something to shout about.
“We have to front up and give them something to cheer, and for as long as we can do that. We have been disappointed with the last three weeks. We haven’t been good enough but we are just one pass away from making things click. If we give them something to cheer about, they get into the game, we get into our game, it’s really good for both parties.”
Bealham, who turns 31 on Sunday, will be starting his third successive game having helped Ireland close out the second and third Test in the summer, so taking his record to four wins in five outings against the All Blacks.
“I was incredibly blessed to be on that tour, I’ll never forget it. The longer I’m in that environment, getting learnings from the players and Paul O’Connell and all the coaches. I’m truly blessed, it was an incredible three weeks and hopefully more memories to come.”