No less than being an outhalf or outside centre when players such as Johnny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll are in their pomp, cast as the role of understudy to a two-time Lions Test series regular can’t be easy.
Finlay Bealham has been occupying that role behind a world-class tighthead in Tadhg Furlong for the last couple of seasons and hasn’t always been afforded the credit he deserves, not least in seeing out four of the five wins over the All Blacks and the second half of last November’s win over South Africa.
The 31-year-old Connacht prop was winning his 28th cap against Wales but in some ways it must have been his most satisfying in an Irish jersey.
“Well, I suppose Tadhg is a world class tighthead, probably the best tighthead in the world and he’s a British and Irish Lion.
“So, look, it’s important to have two tightheads and it’s rare that a tighthead plays 90 minutes so I still felt like I have had a really important role coming off the bench and to get a start last Saturday, I was buzzing for it.
“But I was conscious I didn’t want to play the game on Wednesday or Thursday night, I just stuck to the process and had really good lads around me that supported me and made me feel right at home.
“So, it was good to get the first Six Nations start under the belt and what an atmosphere and place to come and play. It was class.”
[ Gibson-Park, Furlong and Healy out of consideration for match against France ]
It was Bealham’s first start in the Six Nations and fifth overall, the previous quartet having against Canada, the USA, Georgia (where he had an uncomfortable day at loose-head) and most recently against Japan in July 2020, and he admitted to feeling an added sense of pressure.
“Yeah of course, Tadhg’s left the number ‘3′ jersey in a world class place so I suppose there is a bit of pressure to come in and try to take off where he left but look, I just play my game and focus on what I can do and I don’t try to play like Tadhg, I just play the way I play.
“Look, it was a good win tonight and I’m happy with some of the scrum stuff, it was good. Certainly I’ve a bit to work on, yes there was pressure but it is what it is at this level, there’s always pressure.
“The more pressure you have the more you’re doing right, I suppose.”
Bealham has the footwork and skill set which Farrell, Paul O’Connell and the coaching staff like to see in their forwards, as evidenced by his ability to step in at the base when popping the ball to James Ryan for his try.
He was sucking diesel before being replaced on the hour, but put in a good shift, including 13 tackles, with none missed. He has also been scrummaging strongly this season with Connacht, albeit there were only nine scrums in the match last Saturday. Six were on the Irish put-in, and to both his surprise and delight, Bealham won a penalty off one of them.
He’s a very lively and popular character within the squad too, even if he readily admits to being regarded as “weird”.
“Well, that’s just what Pete O’Mahony and a few of the other boys say. I met Gary Keegan last night and they’re all slagging me saying, ‘You have your work cut out with Finlay, he’s a complete freak.’”
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But all personalities are encouraged to be themselves.
“That’s the culture we have, everyone can be themselves and there’s no taking time to be yourself. Everyone comes in from the get-go and you can express yourself. There’s no stupid questions you can ask. That’s really resonated with me. I might have done it overboard with the weirdness and stuff, but I’m just being myself. I really enjoy the environment and hopefully can stay in it a bit longer.”
Now well settled in the west, and married to a Galway pharmacist, Sarah, Bealham intends settling there after rugby; the only regret being that Sarah was working last Saturday.
“She was devastated. But fortunately, I had my father-in-law, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law come over and I got to see them there at the end. I’m sure they’ll have a brilliant night and probably hungover travel tomorrow.
“We got the games and she prioritised some of the home games coming up, which is fair. The one game I got my first start, she’s working, so she’s gutted but she’s good as gold and very supportive. It doesn’t bother me, I can see her tonight.”
Sarah was at home minding the dog, he explains, adding: “You know when people say a dog is like its owner? He’s a French mastiff and he’s 70 kilos. He drools and slobbers everywhere. I always tell her I don’t know how she puts up with the two of us because I’d be a bit of a character and a bit weird. ‘Bane’ is equally as weird and she’s quite normal, so it’s yin and yang. We get on great.
“He actually looks like Bane – the bane of our lives. I couldn’t put the muzzle on because he’s so big. People wouldn’t be afraid of him but he’s a specimen of a yoke so if I had a big muzzle on him, it would probably draw more negative attention to him.
“He’s a big teddy bear. Last night, he was up in the bedroom minding Sarah, so the two of them are holding down the fort really well. It’s pleasing for me because I can come here and put the head down, not be worrying about the ship back home.”