'It is time to repay faith shown in me and really kick on'
Bulked-up back-row determined to nail down Heineken Cup spot and catch Schmidt's eye
Tipperary might be more widely known as a county that produces fine hurlers, but Paddy Butler is hoping to join fellow Premier County men Denis Leamy and Alan Quinlan as Munster and Ireland greats.
With 25 appearances in all competitions last year, Butler was by a long way the busiest of Munster's highly populated back-row pool.
Another Tipp man, Tommy O'Donnell, came closest to his achievement with 21 outings in the red shirt, but racking up that many appearances in Rob Penney's first year in charge shows how highly the new boss rates him.
However, after playing a leading role in the Pro12 last year, where all 13 of his starts arrived, Butler is keen to push on another step and nail down a berth for the Heineken Cup games.
"I was delighted with the way last year went. The year before that I made 10 appearances and three the previous year. I was gradually working my way up and to have such a great season last year was brilliant," says the 22-year-old.
"I got a good few starts in the Rabo, but I didn't start any of the Heineken Cup games. But I was involved in all of them and that was a great experience. Just to be involved on the big day was a huge boost.
"Hopefully, if I can stay injury-free, I will get my chance on the big days. I know there are a lot of experienced heads around here – we have nine or 10 back-rows in the squad – but it would be great to break in and put my own stamp on the team."
Despite his obvious abilities with the oval ball, there was a chance Butler might have been stolen by another love. As a lively centre-forward, he represented Tipperary hurlers up to U-16 grade, but after that he focused on an even smaller ball.
"I played a bit of hurling as a young fella. I won a few underage competitions and played for Tipp with lads like Noel McGrath," he says.
"But, after that, I took up a bit of golf and represented Munster in that too. I eventually got down to a handicap of one, but I quickly decided that the game wasn't for me and I made the move to rugby.
"I am from a real GAA background. My dad, Paddy, played hurling and handball – he has a few All-Ireland medals in handball.
"The rugby only came around when I gave it a go with Cashel underage. I decided to go to Rockwell College on the back of that after I enjoyed it so much. And once you go into first year there, everyone plays it."
Butler points to his father and his mother Eleanor as the major influences on his career; his younger brother Aidan – another back-row – is already involved in the Munster underage set-up after winning two senior cups with Rockwell.
Outside of his home place in Cashel, Butler has had plenty of guidance on his way to the Munster first team, with Anthony Foley and Penney both forthcoming with advice.
"Rob was a No 8 as well and Axel is there too. He has been my coach since the U-20s and then Rob came in last year. He has all the good traits of a back-row and he has been brilliant with me. They have both minded me over the years, so it is time to repay the faith that both of them have showed in me and kick on," he says.
In order for the former U-20 international to take the next step, the strength and conditioning team put Butler on a special plan which has seen him bulk up over the summer.
In his 40-minute cameo at Musgrave Park last week, it was noticeable that Butler is now one of the bigger back-rows, primed for the rough and tumble of his position, a physique tailored by a summer of eating well and staying off his feet.
"I managed to put on 4kg over the summer. I have been on a plan where I wasn't allowed run at all. I was doing loads of bike work and pool work for fitness and that carried on into the first five weeks of pre-season," he explains.
"The plan was to stay off my feet in order to keep the weight on. I put the calories into me and kept the workload down on the pitch. The results are very good and all the S&C team and coaches are happy with it.
"I have only started back running in the last three weeks. My return is a bit slower than everyone else, but it will really benefit my game in the long run, with that extra few pounds.
"I am up near 107kg now, but I needed that. I needed to bulk up to play in the back-row. The collisions there are huge, it is so physical now and you need that extra power to break through tackles and to give out big hits. Hopefully, I'll see a huge difference."
It really has been an accelerated development for the Shannon club man. A year after leaving school, he was moved onto a development contract with Munster, bypassing the academy on the back of impressive outings for the Irish U-20s.
But, right now, he is happy to ease out of the fast lane and nail down his Munster spot before looking for another green shirt.
"I do have ambitions to play with Ireland and, hopefully, this year I'll make the summer tour to Argentina. But my main focus is to work the stepping stones one at a time," he says.
"If I nail down a starting place for Munster then, hopefully, Ireland will fall into place. To be a key player in this team is what I want to secure this year. I want them to feel like they can rely on me in the big games.
"And this year I am even more determined to nail down a starting position on the Heineken Cup team. I'd like to believe I can do it. I am confident in my abilities."