'It's something new, something very different... I thought it would be cool to be part of'

Former Munster and Pau back row Paddy Butler has joined Japanese club Yamaha Júbilo.

THE FIRST TIME we try to speak, Paddy Butler has to get off the call promptly to deal with a taxi driver who is very confused about where he’s bringing the Irishman in his new home of Iwata, a city in the Shizuoka Prefecture of Japan.

The former Munster and Pau back row has signed for Yamaha Júbilo in Japan’s Top League for the next two seasons and though there will evidently be teething issues – Google Maps is essential for confused taxi drivers – it’s an exciting move for the 29-year-old. 

Butler was due to make his debut for Yamaha three weekends ago but had the deep misfortune to suffer a fractured eye socket in a full-contact training session two days before the game.

munsters-paddy-butler Butler on the ball in Pro14 final in 2015. Source: INPHO/Billy Stickland

That he and his team-mates were going full-on so soon before a game points to one of the rugby differences in Japan.

After taking an accidental elbow to the face, Butler went to blow his nose and felt like his eye was popping out. The eye stayed in but the back row was ruled out for several weeks, thankful not to require surgery. He hopes to make his debut next weekend.

An Irish player in Japan is very rare. Former Ireland U20 international Harrison Brewer is on the books at Panasonic Wild Knights, having played in the Japanese second division last season, but Butler is keen to blaze a trail for others.

“It’s funny – when we were initially talking to Yamaha, they were saying they don’t know what an Irish person is like. Because all they do is sign Kiwis, South Africans, and Aussies,” says Butler, who played 64 times for his native Munster from 2010 until 2015.

“They just hadn’t looked at European players so hopefully that changes now and it helps a few others make the move over. I’ll have to take a cut from any deals in the future!”

Butler’s time with Top 14 club Pau finished at the end of last season after “four amazing years” that the Cashel man feels matured him as a person and helped him to understand that assimilating into a new culture is about respecting it, first and foremost.

That lesson will be valuable now in Japan. In terms of rugby, the Pau years were important for Butler as he played with and against some of the best in the game.

“I loved every minute of it. We had a great group of people and the town and the supporters are incredibly passionate. I made friends I’ll always be close to. Then playing in the Top 14, which I reckon is the best league in the world, is just class.

“You’re playing in front of sold-out stadiums week in, week out and that’s the part I enjoyed. There are some pretty decent players there and I think the relegation and promotion adds a lot – every game is a big game.”

dave-foley-and-paddy-butler-celebrate-after-the-game Butler celebrates a Pau win with Dave Foley in 2018. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Butler moved to France after becoming frustrated at the lack of consistent opportunities in Munster, where there was always a highly-competitive back row battle.

Though French forwards are renowned for their size, former Ireland U20 and Emerging Ireland international Butler actually slimmed down by a few kgs after joining Pau, looking to use his mobility, fitness, and footwork as points of difference.

Interestingly, he was also transformed into a lineout caller. In Ireland, calling lineouts is a second row’s job but French rugby is different. Butler learned the ropes from lineout legend and fellow back row Jean Boulihou in his first season at Pau and went on to run the lineout many times.

Playing alongside compatriots James Coughlan, Dave Foley, and Sean Dougall was fun as they battled it out in front of passionate crowds in places like Bordeaux, La Rochelle, and Clermont.

Having departed Pau last year, Butler’s agent was looking around for his next move. The Tipp man was home in Ireland when Munster boss Johann van Graan called him to ask if Butler would come in and train with the province during pre-season, their numbers depleted due to the World Cup.

Butler gladly obliged and returned to Munster for the first time since 2015, playing in their pre-season clash with Connacht. Going back was an odd, enjoyable experience.

“When I left, they had the two training centres in Limerick and Cork, so that was different!” says Butler.

“Johann asked me to come in and I said definitely. It was keeping me up to speed and it was also an opportunity potentially for more. That obviously didn’t work out but the set-up is incredible and the lads were working their socks off.

“Stephen Larkham had just come in and it was good to see his thought process on how he wants to play the game, his methods with attack, it was so different and something new to me.

paddy-butler Butler at Munster training last September. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I still have loads of friends back home who are playing and it was good to see them all. To be honest, it was a bit weird at the very start going in but great to see the old faces.”

While joining Munster again on a permanent basis would have been exciting, Butler was also interested in the rapidly-developing rugby scene in Japan.

“I was always keen to try and get an offer here. My agents were always looking at the market here and they just said that Yamaha were looking for a number eight.”

The Japanese club had a tour in France last November, so Butler went to meet them and was sent a contract offer within 36 hours of the meeting.

“I said, ‘Why not? What a cool experience.’ It’s something new, something very different. I was looking at the quality of players who had signed over here, you’re looking at marquee players everywhere.

“I thought it would be pretty cool to be part of, especially after the World Cup. They’re getting sell-out crowds double the size of what they usually get. It’s really carried on from the popularity of the World Cup.”

Japanese rugby is in an exciting if slightly unpredictable place. The Japanese Rugby Football Union is pushing ahead with plans for a new professional league from 2021 onwards, with 12 clubs in the top division.

For now, the Top League is stacked with high-profile talent like Brodie Retallick, Damian de Allende, RG Snyman, Duane Vermeulen, David Pocock, Sam Whitelock, Dan Carter, Kieran Read, and many other recognisable names, all of whom are being very well paid.

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Butler’s Yamaha also have Springboks flanker Kwagga Smith and Aussie lock Richie Arnold on their books, but they have excelled in recent times by having some of the best Japanese players.

paddy-butler-arrives Butler loved his four seasons in France. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Butler’s impression of the rugby so far is that it’s “fast, very fast,” while he explains that the training approach is extremely different in Japan, where they are certainly not of the opinion that less is more.

“They just train and train and train, just go all day. It’s frightening in a way, they don’t stop! They’ll be out there for an hour and a half going hammer and tongs.”

While other clubs in the eight-team Top League have foreign coaches, Yamaha’s are Japanese and it means Butler and the other imports have a translator who sits in every meeting with them.

As is the case in the majority of clubs in Japan, many of the Yamaha squad actually work for the company that owns the team, as well as playing for them. Butler reckons 60% of the squad in Iwata work for Yamaha.

While the fully-professional players gather for breakfast, gym, and meetings in the morning, the Yamaha employees are busy with their jobs. The non-professional players then join for training on the pitch at 2pm and do their own weights later in the day.

“It’s refreshing in a way because you see them putting in a serious shift and they’re then so happy to turn up for training,” says Butler.

“There’s no negative talk or negative emotions, just out for training with a smile on their face. I’m taking a step back and thinking, ‘We have it easy.’ It puts it in perspective.

“In a lot of teams in professional rugby, people might take it for granted but then after working but you see them so happy and energetic and you realise you’re in a priveliged position.”

Off the pitch, Butler – who owns a fish and chip shop in Ocean City in the US with his brother -  has started to learn Japanese and is loving the local cuisine. With a business-orientated mind, Butler jokes that he’s looking out for ideas he could bring back to Ireland to make a fortune from in the future.

paddy-butler-with-jacopo-sarto Butler played for Munster 64 times. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

Butler’s fianceé, Molly, is in training to be an obstetrician at Holles Street Hospital and so can’t join him in Japan now but will be out in the near future, while Butler’s two-month break between seasons will be welcome in that regard.

He’s just keen to get started out on the pitch and there is little doubt that many Irish players will be tracking his progress with keen interest. 

“That excited me, being one of the first to head out. I definitely think it will be a place for people to come and the new league is going to kick off even bigger with more teams.

“I think it will be up there competing with Europe and it’s definitely another marketplace for lads.”

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Murray Kinsella

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