Johann van Graan: Munster can’t look past altitude factor against Bulls

In the tunnel that leads out to the Bulls’ home ground, there is an unmissable sign that serves as both a reminder and warning for opposing teams: 'Altitude. 1,350 metres. It matters.'
Johann van Graan: Munster can’t look past altitude factor against Bulls

Munster squad training in Pretoria ahead of the clash with the Bulls in the URC. Picture: INPHO/Gordon Arons

Munster are mindful of the challenge playing at altitude will present when they tackle the Bulls at Loftus on Saturday.

In the tunnel that leads out to the Bulls’ home ground of ‘Fortress Loftus’, there is an unmissable sign that serves as both a reminder and warning for opposing teams: “Altitude. 1,350 metres. It matters.”

Munster, who have been preparing to play in the high temperatures of South Africa’s summer, will also face back-to-back clashes to be played at altitude, which will be viewed as one of the greatest intangible allies for both the Bulls and Lions.

Johann van Graan, who spent several years coaching at the Bulls, is all too aware of the impact that playing on the South African highveld can have on travelling teams.

“We took notice of that (sign) in the tunnel,” Van Graan commented from the team’s Pretoria base this week.

“Altitude is one of those things you can’t look past. Some of our coaches like Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree have played and coached here before, and I was involved in the Test match in 2016 (as Springbok assistant coach) when Ireland led 19-3 at half-time at Ellis Park, and then 26-10, but South Africa still came back and won.

“In terms of altitude you have to plan well for it, you can’t wish it away, it’s a fact. We are 1,350 metres above sea level, and it has been hot here. I believe when people woke up in Limerick it was -1C, but it’s been 27 and sunny here in Pretoria, so those are the facts. But that’s the beauty of the URC, the South African teams had to go to Europe and adapt, and now we have to come here and do the same.

“So we are under no illusions as to the task that awaits, and as Munster, these are the things we are looking forward to. The Bulls have been phenomenal over the last couple of years, particularly at home.”

In fact, since Jake White took over as Bulls coach in 2020, the back-to-back Currie Cup champions have yet to lose a game at home, with their unbeaten streak at Loftus stretching to 24 games in all competitions.

Former Munster forward Arno Botha, back for a second stint at the Bulls, readily admits that home-ground advantage is a valuable trump card.

“You can be aware of the conditions, but it still won’t make it easier for you. In 2019 when I was still at Munster and we played the Cheetahs, we knew what we were in for and that it was going to be hot, but it was still difficult for that Munster team.

“We play at 7.45pm this weekend, so it might be a bit cooler, which will suit them, but there’s still the altitude they have to deal with. That said, we won’t bank on that either. We have to focus on what we want to do, on what we want from the game and on countering what they bring to the contest.

“We have to vary our game-plan to pose a greater attacking threat to Munster… and to stamp our authority on them and on the game.”

Botha, who spent two successful years with Munster, also spoke specifically of the strengths his former club would bring.

“I obviously know a lot of the guys in the Munster team and it will be good to catch up with them. They have really high standards and good depth. We know they will bring a good kicking game, and we’re aware they’re very strong at the breakdown.

“It’s not going to just be another day at the office for us, this is a team with incredibly good structures, and we know they like to maul and contest the breakdown. In that sense it’s quite similar to the way South African teams play, but then there’s someone like Stephen (Larkham) there who brings a bit of flair to what they do. We will need to have all our bases covered.”

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