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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Injury to Tadhg Furlong means Finlay Bealham has weight of nation’s expectation on his shoulders

Finlay Bealham: Set for tough test against Wales. Photo: Sportsfile

Andy Farrell welcomes adversity to the point that he was enthusiastically talking up the loss of Tadhg Furlong for the Six Nations opener against Wales, as if he’d knobbled the Leinster star himself to see how they’d get on without him.

The way the coach is framing it, the loss of one of the team’s most important players for a key match is a challenge – and life is about challenges.

“It’s great for us,” he said of the loss of one of the team’s truly world-class players; a guaranteed starter, who has been ever-present for the last 14 games.

The last time Furlong was out for a prolonged period, Ireland had the comfort of having Andrew Porter in reserve but the gamble of moving the Dubliner across the front-row – in order to get both of them on the pitch – means that Finlay Bealham has become an integral figure.

He’s never been more important than he is now.

Bealham has only started four of his 27 internationals, and they were all against lesser opposition. Indeed, one of those four came on the other side of the scrum.

The Australian has been around the set-up since 2016 and he’s thrived under Farrell’s leadership.

He’s closed out four wins over New Zealand, and played the entire second half against South Africa last November.

Wales can’t scrummage like the Springboks, but Warren Gatland will see Bealham and his back-up Tom O’Toole as weak links in the Irish chain. They’ll be tested thoroughly.

Farrell pointed to the way the team responded to losing Johnny Sexton in the warm-up against Australia as an example of how they’ve learnt to deal with adversity – and they’ve known that Furlong was struggling to get his troublesome calf right for a few days now.

They want to win the Six Nations and the World Cup – and they know that to do so, they’ll need to overcome challenges like this one along the way.

If they can beat Wales away without Furlong, then they’ll welcome him back for France with a little more confidence in the collective.

Lose and it opens up a whole new avenue of concern.

That’s the lot of a professional coach who works away diligently behind the scenes all week only to have their entire body of work judged on the 80 minutes on a Saturday.

This is a dangerous game.

A venue where Ireland haven’t won since 2013, the return of Warren Gatland and an experienced team determined to show they’re not yesterday’s men – there’s plenty of danger lurking for Ireland.

They dazzled with ball in hand in 2022, but that was all built on a strong set-piece – so the ability of Bealham and O’Toole to scrummage well, and contribute to a successful lineout, is key to the success of the team.

The Connacht star is a decent ball-player, but he won’t be trusted in the same way as Furlong, and lacks the explosive power the Wexford native brings to the table.

Still, Furlong’s recent injury profile suggests that Ireland need to be ready to cope without him.

A succession of troublesome back, hamstring and now calf issues have kept him out for spells – and, as he hits 30 with a big body of work behind him, there’s always a risk he’s going to miss big games.

Farrell won’t want the team to miss a beat.

He’ll see the strength of Bealham joining an otherwise first-choice pack, of O’Toole coming off a bench full of Lions experience.

There’s the reassuring presence of Johnny Sexton at No 10, the continuity of keeping Stuart McCloskey in midfield with Garry Ringrose, and the calmness and class of Caelan Doris, Dan Sheehan, Josh van der Flier and Hugo Keenan, who are all enjoying excellent seasons.

He’ll look at the players who couldn’t force their way into the 23-man squad, and see quality, in-form operators who can count themselves unlucky.

Ryan Baird, Jimmy O’Brien, Jack Crowley, Jordan Larmour, Gavin Coombes, Craig Casey and Dave Kilcoyne are all fit, in-form and could have been included.

That they’re not is a reminder of Ireland’s strength in depth.

Bealham aside, what are the risks for Ireland?

Well, their attack showed signs of grinding to a halt in November, and they won’t want to rely on their defence to get them through here.

Australia and Fiji went after Ireland’s breakdown aggressively, and they looked far more ordinary on slow ball.

Without a big, powerful lock, they’re a little under-sized when the game slows down.

James Lowe and Sexton have played precious little rugby in recent weeks – and there’s always a fear that the skipper’s advanced age will catch him in the end, as he races against time before the World Cup.

They believe they’ve grown a harder mental edge, but that will be tested if the home team get on top and the capacity crowd get behind them. And they’ll have to manage referee Karl Dickson, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do in Cardiff. 

Although his template is simple – and Farrell knows him well from the two Lions tours where he served as his assistant – Gatland’s arrival makes Wales harder to analyse.

It is safe to assume that he’ll have a galvanising effect on a group of players who missed him when he was gone.

For all of that, Ireland are the world’s No 1 side, who are justifiably favourites for this tournament.

One injury shouldn’t be enough to destabilise that body of work – and they have consistently gotten better at handling what were once body-blows across the Farrell reign.

Bealham has the full confidence of the coach as he takes the weight of the rugby nation’s expectation on his shoulders. That might be enough to see him through.

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