In what has been a recurring theme of the Andy Farrell era, Finlay Bealham has been one of several eye-catching late bloomers in the Irish squad, especially since the lockdown. No longer is it seen as imperative that Tadhg Furlong stays on the pitch for 70-plus minutes.
Approaching his 30th birthday in October 2021, Bealham had started just four Tests, with a dozen more off the bench. Since then he has become a regular in the squad as the backup tight head, replacing Furlong in all the 2022 Six Nations games and two of the Test series in New Zealand.
Yet when the latter was sidelined at the start of the 2023 Six Nations, Bealham had still to convince the doubters, which he duly did in the wins over Wales (his first Six Nations start since his debut seven years previously), France and Italy before being sidelined for the rest of the Championship as Furlong returned.
So it was that Bealham replaced Furlong for the last 16 minutes against South Africa and aside from Ireland winning a second three-pointer off a scrum penalty, the replacement’s half-dozen tackles demonstrated his mobility and improved all-round game.
“From a mindset point of view, when I’m on the bench I don’t care how many minutes I play, it’s ‘make the minutes count’. I try my best to do that,” explains the Connacht tight head.
“It was good to come on. It was extremely physical even though I was on for 17 minutes or whatever it was. It was still incredibly physical and incredibly tough. It was good to see some impact from the bench, especially Hendy [Iain Henderson], Mur [Conor Murray], and all the other boys who came on were unbelievable.”
Although he played the final quarter and first hour of the warm-up wins over England and Samoa, Bealham’s only World Cup action before the Springboks game has been the last 10 minutes against Tonga.
“Personally, it was a frustrating start to the campaign but some of that stuff was out of my control and all I could control was the moment in front of my face. When I got my chance, I just tried to come on and make a positive impact. It was incredible to get that experience. The Irish fans were unbelievable. They came out in spades. So, to be out there in all that was class.”
Bealham has been in the Irish rugby set-up since 2010 after being rejected by the Brumbies. As his maternal grandmother Sarah, or ‘Sadie’, hailed from Enniskillen, he and his father Roy put together a video highlights reel and sent it to Allen Clarke, then the IRFU’s high-performance manager, and Mike Ruddock, then the Irish under-20 coach. This earned a trial and time with Belfast Harlequins and the Ulster sub-academy.
Despite playing for Ireland in the 2011 Under-20 Six Nations and World Cup, he was released by Ulster, before being given a chance in the Connacht academy by Nigel Carolan. He was looked after by Corinthians.
“I moved over originally when I was 18/19 years of age, having the dream of playing professional rugby. And I suppose I moved over because the dream seemed a bit harder where I was in Australia, and I had that Irish heritage through my mum’s side of the family when I came over.
“I was really tight with my nana at the time. She used to ring me every day when I was in Galway. I remember one time when I forgot to bring my phone to training and she had called me 70 times, or something crazy, you wouldn’t believe it.
“But to represent my nana, who I was always close with growing up, representing all of them, who’d have thought that I’d be here a good few years later at a World Cup? It’s pretty surreal but every time I get to wear the jersey, and every time I sing the anthem, I always think of my family and everything they sacrificed for me to get to where I am at.”
Being involved this Saturday in a crunch Pool B finale against Scotland in front of another Stade de France full house would be especially memorable, as it is likely to be Peter O’Mahony’s 100th cap for his country.
At first glance they would appear like chalk and cheese, the somewhat unconventional Connacht prop with his liking for Vikings and the hard-edged Cork flanker who has cultivated something of a gnarled, snarling Munster image.
“Me and Pete are best friends,” says Bealham, in deadpan mode. “He mightn’t say that to you, but he would say it to me the whole time and then, as well, I’m wearing crocs at the moment but I bought Pete the exact same pair so we could be matching.
“He might be wearing them and he might not be, but in all seriousness he’s an incredible leader in the group. He’s someone that I look up to as a player and the way he is a professional about everything on and off the pitch. For him to get his 100th cap I’ll be delighted for him. He’s a credit to the jersey and his family will be proud of him I’m sure.”
Bealham revealed he used to do some gardening when he lived with his parents in Canberra, but did not suggest this was the reason for his friendship with the famously green-fingered Munster captain.
“We get on well for many reasons,” responded Bealham, warming to his theme. “I don’t know if it’s gardening, and I don’t know if he will confirm this, but he wants to bring out a podcast with me, and then it will be kind of like two opposite characters chatting. The lads seem to get a good laugh out of us.
“Like I said, we’re best friends and I hope this lasts forever.”