DAN BIGGAR IS heading for the post-match function with his family, his youngest child dressed in full Wales kit. Awkwardly, one of the security staff doesn’t seem to recognise him and initially refuses the Biggars entry through the double doors.
It’s Saturday evening and there’s a hum of activity coming in and out of the changing rooms at the Principality Stadium as the dust settles on an absorbing tie.
Bundee Aki passes by and roars, “Finlay” in a high-pitch voice as he spots the interviewee. Soon after, Andy Farrell strolls past with a nod to the man who has just enjoyed his first Six Nations start.
Finlay Bealham is discussing that achievement, as well as how at home he feels in this Ireland squad. Farrell’s group is a place where everyone is encouraged to open up. This appeals to tighthead prop Bealham. One of his favourite phrases is, ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.’
The Connacht prop, a native of Australia who moved to Ireland in 2010, is in a good place. His Test career is moving onto another level, he is happily married to his long-term partner, Sarah, since last summer, and he loves life in Galway.
“I’ll be settling there post-rugby,” says Bealham of living in the west.
“The weather is a bit weird and it gets four seasons on some days but other than that, it’s a beautiful place with lovely people and I really enjoy it. Lots of nice restaurants where I can get salads, that’s my diet!”
Sarah, a pharmacist, wasn’t able to make it to Cardiff last weekend due to work but she’s due to be at the Aviva Stadium this weekend as Bealham gets set for his second consecutive start for Ireland.
She did at least have company back home last week when her husband was in Portugal for training camp and then in Cardiff for the game. Their 70kg French mastiff, Bane, needs plenty of minding.
“You know when people say a dog is like its owner… he drools and slobbers everywhere,” says Bealham.
“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 [from Batman]. The bane of our lives!”
Bealham certainly comes across as a unique character who’s not afraid to be himself. The other Ireland players fondly let him know that he’s a bit different.
“Well, that’s just what Pete O’Mahony and a few of the other boys say,” explains Bealham when asked about being a ‘weird character.’
“I met Gary Keegan [who works on Ireland’s mental skills] last night and they’re all slagging me saying, ‘You have your work cut out with Finlay, he’s a complete freak.’”
Bealham says he loves the Ireland environment and is hopeful of being part of it for a while longer. That looks like a good bet given how his importance has grown under Farrell.
He has been a reliable back-up for Furlong and now finds himself a starter with the Wexford man sidelined by a calf injury.
“Tadhg has left the number three 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 it,” says Bealham.
“But look, I just play my game and focus on what I can do. I don’t try to play like Tadhg, I just play the way I play.”
The Connacht tighthead did as much last weekend. He had some lovely touches on the ball to show his handling level, while also making five carries and completing all 13 of his tackles in his 60-minute outing before making way for Tom O’Toole.
Just as impressively, Bealham won a first-half scrum penalty that allowed Johnny Sexton to kick three points as Ireland built an unassailable lead.
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“I actually didn’t even know we had a scrum penalty,” says Bealham. “I got up and didn’t know we had an advantage, I was running around and was like, ‘Bollox, I wish we had the penalty now’.
“Play stopped and it was like, ‘Penalty!’ and I was like, ‘Is that a scrum penalty? Ah, lovely!’
“I know it sounds a bit cliched but there’s a big emphasis on the back five getting into really strong positions to let the front row get into our slots in the scrum, so there’s a big eight effort. Look, it was an important penalty and I was delighted.”
Bealham is excited to have a crack at the French pack now. There’s no doubt that powerhouse tight five forwards like Uini Atonio, Paul Willemse, and Cyril Baille will ask more severe questions of the Irish pack.
It excites Bealham to face forwards of that quality. He put in a big 40-minute shift against the Springboks last autumn and wants more of that kind of challenge.
“Similar to the South African pack, they’re big and have a lot of weight in there,” says Bealham.
“We will have to be properly on it. If you’re not on it against big packs like that, you’ll be getting the reverse lights. We don’t want that to happen so we’ll make sure we have a good week in training and work best on it as possible.”
– originally published at 6am, updated at 8.30am to appear on The Journal.
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