Finlay Bealham set to earn his 100th cap for Connacht

Ireland prop says it is a ‘massive honour’ to join the elite group who have reached the milestone

Finlay Bealham is set to join an elite group of Connacht players who have made 100 appearances for the province.

The Ireland and Connacht prop, having fully recovered from a "knee niggle", is expected to mark his 100th cap for the province against Italian visitors Zebre at the Sportsground on Friday evening.

The 26-year-old Australian-born player, who has made a huge impact since joining the Connacht Academy four seasons ago, says it is a “massive honour” to join the small group of Connacht players.

“If you were writing how you would want to do it, then it would be at home, in front of a massive, noisy Sportsground crowd. Just to join players who have reached that milestone, I am really honoured to be part of that, and proud as well.”

Bealham is expected to be one of the few changes to the Connacht squad, which is looking for its sixth Pro14 win, when former coach Michael Bradley returns to the Sportsground with the Italian side.

Connacht defence coach Peter Wilkins says the fixture is about continuing the momentum of the past seven successive Sportsground wins, while keeping an eye on the impending two-week trip to Italy and South Africa.

“We are not looking at making too many changes because it is important we maintain the success we have had at home over the last few months. We are in a good position, with guys fresh after the break, and we want to go away for two weeks with as many as possible players who are match-fit and fresh. It is about how we balance and reintegrate players into the squad.

“This week it is all about beating Zebre, and our decision-making in attack and defence will be crucial,” Wilkins says.

He says Connacht were “hugely disappointed” to lose to Bradley’s Zebre by 24-10 in December, and need the four points to extend their current 11-point lead over the Italians in Conference A.

“We knew what a threat they are. They have improved a huge amount this year. They always had strength up front, but they are playing good rugby, running from their own 22, retaining possession, and stretching teams and defences. We knew it would be a challenge going over there [in December], but we felt we didn’t deliver that day. They were hungrier and sharper, and we need to put it right. We have that opportunity here at the Sportsground this week, and everyone is motivated.”

Both Jarrad Butler and Niyi Adeolokun have returned to training this week, but Tiernan O'Halloran and Andrew Browne will be missing. Browne's injury is not as bad as first feared, but he could be out for four to six weeks following the knock to his shoulder joint. O'Halloran will be assessed this week, after he left the field against Ospreys with a hamstring injury.