While Johann van Graan has brought Munster teams on South African tours before, this time it's special.

This week, they are in Pretoria for the first leg of their South African double-header against the Vodacom Bulls and the Emirates Lions, which begins on Saturday at Loftus Versfeld.

Pretoria, the Bulls and that iconic stadium are dear to the Munster head coach's heart.

He's a Pretoria native who grew up with blue blood in his veins; his father Barend was involved with the club for 35 years and served as CEO until 2019, the younger Van Graan went from ballboy in the early 1990s to a Super Rugby winning coach across the next two decades, before returning to Loftus as a member of the Springbok coaching team.

On his return this week, he'll need all the inside information he can get to break 'Fortress Loftus', where the Bulls are unbeaten in the last three year under director of rugby Jake White.

"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 said.

"Really looking forward to it, massive challenge ahead, but great to be in Pretoria."

While the 41-year-old was keen to stress that he doesn't want this week to be about him, his connection to the city, the club and even the stadium were palpable.

Van Graan (left) speakig to Pierre Spies (right) while working as the Bulls forwards coach in 2012

He sounded emotional when recalling some of the great moments he had at Loftus down through the years, reeling them off without hesitation and in such vivid and endearing detail that you can see how proud he is to be bringing a team of his own back to his home town.

"Loftus has been my home as a small boy, starting out as a ballboy there," the former Bulls coach recalled.

"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 1 November 2003. The Currie Cup win 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.

"The Springbok Test matches that I had the privilege to be involved in there, the first one was Australia in 2012 which was Johan Goosen's debut that day, the Samoans in 2013, the last one was also against Australia in 2016, so phenomenal moments at Loftus, also the school right across the road, and 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. 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."

While the Bulls have won just one of their four United Rugby Championship games to date, they were doing so away from home and away from the natural advantages of geography.

At 1,350 metres above sea level, Loftus Versfeld will test the lungs of Munster's squad this week, plenty of whom wouldn't have travelled on their previous Pro14 trips to Bloemfontein.

Munster's last game at altitude was a 40-19 defeat to the Cheetahs in 2019

A squad of 33 players flew out from Ireland on Saturday, including Gavin Coombes and Simon Zebo, who went unused by Ireland head coach Andy Farrell this month.

Van Graan says they plan to bring more of their internationals out to South Africa for the second game of the tour against the Lions next week.

"We'll treat guys individually, see how they recover after the Test matches, look at certain minutes," he said.

"There will definitely be certain players flying to South Africa next Saturday and arriving next Sunday. We might leave certain guys behind.

"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.

"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."

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