Munster coach Johann van Graan is set for a nostalgic return to Pretoria this weekend as part of his team’s upcoming tour to South Africa during the resumed United Rugby Championship programme.
The 41-year-old admitted that being back in Pretoria and preparing Munster for the challenge of facing his former team, the Bulls, is a surreal feeling.
Excited to be back
“It got very real when we drove into Pretoria and drove past the old school (Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool) and past the university and Loftus Versfeld and into our hotel,” Van Graan told the Irish Times. “Really looking forward to it, massive challenge ahead, but great to be in Pretoria.”
Van Graan will be part of an opposition team at Loftus Versfeld for the very first time and easily recalls his memories at the famous stadium.
“Loftus has been my home as a small boy, starting out as a ballboy there,” he added. “Some phenomenal moments and Test matches that I had the privilege to be a ballboy at.
“In 1994, standing next to Andre Joubert and meeting Nelson Mandela, the Rugby World Cup in ’95 when Emile Ntamack scored against the Scots, when Philippe Sella passed me and looking in his eyes, having Jonah Lomu run at Loftus when the All Blacks had their white jerseys, the ’98 Currie Cup win for the Blue Bulls, and starting to work at the Bulls officially on the 1st of November 2003.”
He reminisced further, seeing his return as a “full circle”.
“So phenomenal moments at Loftus, (there is) also the school right across the road, and (now) full circle coming back with Munster, a club I’ve learned to love and call my home,” explained Van Graan.
“I’m from Munster now and great emotions to be part of it, from a team perspective it’s not about me. It’s about Munster, the start of a new block, but personally great to come back to your home town and have some of the memories that I had the privilege of feeling. That’s the beauty of rugby, it’s the memories that you have out of it.”
Van Graan revealed that some, if not all, of Munster’s eight players representing Ireland in the Autumn Nations Series, will only link up with the squad next Sunday in hopes of being in contention for the Lions in Johannesburg the following week.
Tadhg Beirne, Joey Carbery, Craig Casey, Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Dave Kilcoyne, Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony all remained behind as the Munster squad travelled to South Africa. Springboks Damian de Allende has been offered a rest after playing 11 of 13 Tests in 2021.
“We’ll treat guys individually, see how they recover after the Test matches, look at certain minutes. Simon (Zebo) and Gavin (Coombes) flew with us, we’ll see how our squad is on this side. We’re living in a time of Covid which we have to take into consideration,” said Van Graan.
“There will definitely be certain players flying to South Africa next Saturday and arriving next Sunday. We might leave certain guys behind. Our focus is on the Bulls and we’ll see how we get through that game. We’ve planned pretty well, we believe, with the cards we have been given to us and now we’ve got to make the best of it and enjoy the two weeks in South Africa before we return to Ireland.”
Both of the matches will be played in Highveld, with Van Graan being able to use Stephen Larkham’s experiences here as a coach and player and Graham Rowntree’s as a coach in preparation for Saturday’s clash played at 1,350 meters above sea level.
“In terms of altitude you’ve got to plan well for it. You can’t wish it away, it’s a fact we’re 1,350 metres above sea level. The heat, I believe it was minus one in Limerick this morning when people woke up and it’s 27 degrees and sunny in Pretoria,” he said.
“You can’t move past that, and I believe it’s the beauty of the URC, the fact that the Bulls and the South African teams had to go to Europe and adapt, and now we’ve got to come here, that’s what makes this competition beautiful.
“We’re under no illusions as to the task that awaits us. As Munster, these are the things we’re looking forward to. The Bulls have been phenomenal the last three years at home, it’s a massive challenge that awaits us.”