Pretoria - This Saturday afternoon Johann van Graan, once a Loftus Versfeld ball boy who used to look on in awe at his Vodacom Bulls heroes, returns to Pretoria as the man leading the giants of Irish rugby, Munster.
Van Graan will lead his side into a Vodacom United Rugby Championship battle against the Bulls. Even for a man who admits he’s emotional by nature, this will be one for the books.
“This one will be tough,” Van Graan said, speaking primarily about the challenge of facing the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, at altitude, in the highveld heat, and with the renowned physicality the Pretoria side brings.
But for Van Graan, this is exactly what he believes will distinguish the Vodacom United Rugby Championship as a competition.
“I see the Vodacom United Rugby Championship as enhancing the current star players in world rugby. In this competition we go from the cold of Ireland to the heat of Pretoria, and back again.
“From the rain to the dry. When you play against Connacht it will be the wind. Against Glasgow and Cardiff, it will be the 4G pitches.
“All of this is very unique to this competition and exactly why I believe it will be so successful, because the teams and conditions are so different every week. And it’s all going to make for a very different log in two months’ time with the South African teams now at home and holding all the cards.”
Then, turning his attention back to this Saturday, Van Graan added, “This is going to be a fierce battle between two very good teams.”
It may just be a fierce battle of his own rugby heart as well.
Van Graan is a rugby man through and through, raised in the game and shaped by it. And in this particular match, he will probably be the only man amongst all of them at Loftus Versfeld whose heart is actually big enough to accommodate the love he has for both these great teams, both of their rugby cultures, and the life both have given him.
“One of the main reasons I joined Munster was because I could see a lot of the same values in this team as with the Vodacom Bulls.
“Words like passion, ambition, excellence, respect and community apply to both these teams. I had nine years with the Vodacom Bulls and they were some of the best of my life.
“And my time with Munster has also been some of the best of my life at a club I now call my own.”
Van Graan is revelling in the privilege he has had of straddling these two worlds in rugby; worlds that go beyond just the different north and south hemispheres they’re in; worlds that have given him his most cherished memories in the game. It comes through in even how he describes the bus drive from the airport to Loftus Versfeld.
“I feel it the minute I land in South Africa. Driving to Pretoria and you see the iconic buildings, and then Loftus Versfeld, and you know this is rugby country.
“Similarly, when you travel to Munster, the people there live and breathe rugby. They have Munster flags hanging out of their homes. It’s that respect for the game, and respect for each other as great opponents.”
He can also appreciate fully the great rugby arena that is Loftus Versfeld. “That’s the beauty of this game and competition. These great stadiums and the shared experiences we can all talk about.
“You know, playing at Thomond Park is one of best experiences you will ever have. It’s a bucket list experience for so many people just to be there for a rugby match on a Saturday afternoon.
“Loftus is a fantastic stadium, and whether it’s 2 000 fans or 50 000 fans at Loftus, it’s a phenomenal place to play rugby and it’s something we’re going to really embrace this week.”
For the rugby man he is and for all the challenges this week brings, Van Graan is exactly where he wants to be, and needs to be; at the meeting point between two proud rugby cultures.
That is a Munster side dating back to 1879 and which is the first Irish club to have defeated an international Test team when they beat Australia 11-8 in 1967, and a Vodacom Bulls team that has produced some of the finest Springboks in history, was a championship force in Vodacom Super Rugby from 2007 to 2010 which Van Graan shared in, and the only South African provincial team in the professional era to have humbled the British and Irish Lions whom they beat at Loftus in 1997.
But for Van Graan, this weekend, whatever the result, will be about the memories.
And for him “memories are people”. “Just last night I was chatting to Simon Zebo and Jack O’Donoghue about the Vodacom Bulls’ glory days I was privileged to share in. About the Vodacom Super Rugby Final at Loftus in 2009 and beating the Chiefs 61-17 that day.
“Then Simon speaks about his time with Racing 92 and playing in the Paris La Défence Arena in Paris. I look at Vodacom Bulls players like Bismarck du Plessis who I worked with at the Springboks and who is one of the best there’s ever been.
“Then Arno Botha who was also at Munster. Marcell Coetzee, who has a very special place in my heart. Morné Steyn, who is one of my personal friends.”
Van Graan pauses for just a second, then adds, “As I said, I’m a pretty emotional guy and I will be emotional on Saturday. But at the end of it all we can only share memories, and that’s the beauty of world rugby. Hopefully on Saturday I can make some more great memories with Munster.”