Just 80 more minutes and it will be all over for those in the red jersey of Munster. There may be summer tours to relish for some and the beach may beckon for others but if any players still crave more rugby and a catch-up with old friends, Paddy Butler, James Coughlan, and Sean Dougall still have another month of Top 14 rugby to play with Pau.
They will be into the second half against Clermont at Stade du Hameau when Munster kick off their must-win finale with Scarlets at Thomond Park and there are still three more games to go after that for the Simon Mannix-coached side.
“It’s been an unbelievably long season,” Butler, 25, told the Irish Examiner this week.
“Our first game was in the middle of August and our last game is June 5. And if you make it to the final your last game is June 24, then it all starts again with the new season in the middle of August.”
The play-offs will not be troubling Pau either although having avoided an instant drop to Pro D2 in their first season back in the top flight, they have broken their previous cycle of promotion followed by relegation.
For now, 11th place in the table and sufficiently clear of the bottom two spots to sleep easily at nights will do just fine for the back-row forward who left his native Munster last summer alongside Dougall to join Coughlan in south-west France.
“We stayed up, which was the main objective for the season,” Butler said. “I’m delighted with the way the year has gone. I’ve played every game bar two Challenge Cup games so I’ve played every Top 14 game so far and I think I’ve played the most minutes of anyone in the team this year.
“That’s what I came over here for, what I was looking for, so it’s kind of goal achieved for this season for me. I was looking for game time and then to play well and I’ve done that and I’m pretty happy.”
For Butler, who made 34 starts for Munster in 64 appearances over five seasons, that amount of game time in the Top 14 more than justifies his decision to up sticks from Tipperary.
“It has, definitely. It’s been a great confidence booster to know that you can go some place else and really take a leadership role and play a lot of games.
“There’s even been an added bonus in that I’m calling the lineouts over here which is another string to the bow which is great, that the team has confidence in you to do that and have a trust in your whole game. I really like that, to be honest.”
The extended run in the Pau starting XV has also helped Butler improve as a player, something he felt he was unable to achieve as successfully when he was a bit-part player with Munster.
“That’s the problem with home, especially for the non-internationals. You’re in one week, you start, you might be on the bench next week and the week after that you’re not playing. It’s just so difficult to get momentum into the season. Obviously, it’s fine when you’re a nailed-on starter with your province but when you’re not starting it’s very difficult to get momentum, especially when you’re young and you need to play.
“So it’s been brilliant over here to get that momentum. Everyone just wants to play rugby and it becomes very frustrating when you don’t.”
Butler believes Pau, who also welcomed All Blacks Conrad Smith and Colin Slade this season and look set to sign more stars this summer, including Wallabies back row Ben Mowen from Montpellier, are not interested merely in Top 14 survival.
“We’re building a good squad to compete, not just survive.
“All the clubs are really ambitious and looking to compete and progress, not to just scrape and survive. That’s no fun, you want to play for silverware and that’s the way the club is going. It’s unbelievably ambitious and I think it’s going to be a massive club in the next couple of years, it’s going to continue to build and it’s going to be huge.
“We’re not resting on our laurels. We stayed up, brilliant, but no-one’s really celebrating. At the time it was a relief but no-one wants to be at a club that celebrates staying up. You want to be at a club that is looking to the future and looking to compete.
“Credit where credit’s due, we did stay up in a difficult league with teams on big budgets and international players. In the last five years I think they’ve gone up and down, up and down, and then back up last season. So to stay up is an achievement not to be taken lightly either.”
Sixth place in the Pro12 will represent success this season back in Munster and Butler is well aware of the situation facing his old club.
“I can see what’s happening at home and it’s tough for the lads. I’ve a huge amount of friends playing with Munster, they’re the team I’ve supported since I was young, so I’m obviously interested in how they do and I was so pleased they got the win in Musgrave Park.
“I was watching the lads against Edinburgh, they had a great win. They showed great heart and great bottle to get the fourth try and get the five points, which was huge. Hopefully, it’s given them the confidence to get another win against Scarlets.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved