Cape Town – Johann van Graan has seen and done it all at Loftus Versfeld – he’s won Super Rugby titles, Currie Cups and Springbok Test matches, and even been a ball-boy at his beloved old stomping ground.
But there will be a new experience for the 41-year-old in Pretoria on Saturday, as he is in charge of the Munster side that will look to continue their good start to the United Rugby Championship against the Bulls (7.45pm kickoff).
Van Graan was first part of the Heyneke Meyer era at the Bulls, where he started as a 25-year-old coach in 2005, while his father Barend was also a long-serving chief executive until 2019.
Johann only left the Bulls in 2012 to join Meyer at the Springboks as the forwards coach, where he remained until 2017 under the direction of Allister Coetzee. Van Graan then did a swap of sorts with Rassie Erasmus, who brought him in as the Munster director of rugby, with Erasmus taking over from Coetzee at the Boks.
But he has fond memories of the Bulls and Loftus Versfeld, and it was a true homecoming for Van Graan when he arrived in the capital city this week.
“It got very real when we drove into Pretoria and drove past the old school, and past the university and Loftus Versfeld and into our hotel,” Van Graan told the Irish media.
“Really looking forward to it, massive challenge ahead, but great to be in Pretoria. Loftus has been my home as a small boy, starting out as a ball-boy there.
“Some phenomenal moments and Test matches that I had the privilege to be a ball-boy at. In 1994, standing next to André 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 1998 Currie Cup win for the Blue Bulls, and starting to work at the Bulls officially on the first of November 2003.
“The Currie Cup win in 2004, Currie Cup loss in 2005, the semi-finals against the Crusaders specifically in 2007, 2009 and 2010. The highlight has to be the Chiefs final in 2009, when we beat them 61-17 at Loftus.”
Now Van Graan will look to make new memories with Munster, who have their work cut out to topple the Bulls despite winning four out of their five URC matches so far.
They lost their last encounter 18-10 to the Ospreys in Wales, and while the Bulls only beat the Dragons on their four-game European tour, they haven’t lost at Loftus Versfeld on Jake White’s watch – losing only a Currie Cup game there with a depleted squad under a caretaker coach while White was in charge of the full Bulls side in the Rainbow Cup final against Benetton in Italy earlier in the year.
“Full circle coming back with Munster, a club I’ve learned to love and call my home. I’m from Munster now and great emotions to be part of it. From a team perspective, it’s not about me,” Van Graan said.
“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.
“The Bulls have been phenomenal the last three years at home. It’s a massive challenge that awaits us. We’ve planned well for this one, it will be a big challenge… we enjoy every victory.
“It will be the first one – if we could pull off a win – that have won against the Bulls in the last three years.
“Since Jake took over, they are still unbeaten here at ‘Fortress Loftus’ as they call it. We are under no doubt about the massive challenge that lies ahead.
“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 degrees in Limerick this morning when people woke up, and it’s 27 degrees and sunny in Pretoria.
“You can’t move past that, and I believe it’s the beauty of the United Rugby Championship; 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.”