Emotion, levity and turmoil - the latest Lions documentary is compelling viewing

·5-min read
Emotion, levity and turmoil - the latest Lions documentary is compelling viewing - AFP
Emotion, levity and turmoil - the latest Lions documentary is compelling viewing - AFP

Sunday night will see the documentary of the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa, entitled 'Two Sides', broadcast in the UK for the first time on ITV.

Telegraph Sport was given early access to the three-part series, which covers every moment from when the Lions squad was announced in May last year - with a window into the selection debate around Marcus Smith - through to the dramatic final minutes of the third Test in Cape Town when Morné Steyn - not content with breaking Lions hearts once in his career back in the 2009 series - landing the winning penalty to clinch a 2-1 series win for South Africa.

Lions documentaries have been a highlight of every tour ever since 1997 in South Africa when "This is your f------ Everest, boys" was uttered by Jim Telfer. The later editions have been compelling if not quite as good, with 2009 (what is it about the Lions in South Africa) also particularly impressive. Even the most barrel-chested member of your local rugby club will have no doubt wept at the sight of the great Sir Ian McGeechan breaking down ahead of his final Test in charge of the Lions and being consoled by Graham Rowntree.

There's a folklore to those moments which you cannot really manufacture. Not that it's all about emotion with these documentaries. Levity is extremely welcome, be it Keith Wood in a wig holding tour court and later shaving off McGeechan's hair in 1997, or Simon Zebo in 2013 being set up to phone Rob Penney, the then Munster director of rugby, to convince him that he should be Munster captain next season with the rest of the hushed squad gathered around doing their best to not burst into hysterics.

Understandably, given the 2021 Lions were cooped up in bio-secure bubbles to limit their exposure to Covid-19 while in South Africa, there is not exactly room in 'Two Sides' for a lot of laughs, aside from Duhan van der Merwe joking that there's "no f------ way I'm playing 13" despite the Lions backline being effectively written down on the back of cigarette packet ahead of a game against the Sharks due to several players being identified as close contacts.

With a tweak to the usual format, focussing as the title suggests on both sides this time, the Lions documentary gets a breath of fresh air. There are interviews at the family homes of as many Springboks as Lions players. We see what it means to see a son playing in a Lions series, while features with Stuart Hogg, the parents of Springbok No 8 Jasper Wiese and family of Lions wing Josh Adams are all particularly moving. Adams was selected for the tour while his partner, Georgia, was heavily pregnant with their first child, which ends up becoming a compelling narrative across the three episodes.

Josh Adams played for the Lions in South Africa while his partner, Georgia, was heavily pregnant with their first child - GETTY IMAGES
Josh Adams played for the Lions in South Africa while his partner, Georgia, was heavily pregnant with their first child - GETTY IMAGES

A year can sometimes soften reactions and it's worth remembering in the aftermath of the series how the actual rugby itself was criticised for being a bit drab. Watching the match action again feels secondary compared to the insight gained from the dressing rooms seeing how Warren Gatland and his coaches on one side compared with Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber on the other motivate their squads. But the primary interest is seeing just how close the tour was to going up in smoke in those weeks before the Test series began, particular when South Africa were forced to cancel their second warm-up fixture against Georgia - just their second Test since winning the World Cup - when the Springboks had 26 positive cases in their camp.

It still seems astonishing that the tour went ahead at all given the combination of the pandemic with civil unrest in South Africa at the time over the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma. Instead of swathes of red shirts with the touring Lions supporters taking over Cape Town, you had red stickers on the doors of the Springboks' hotel bedroom doors signifying which members of the squad had tested positive. But, as is made abundantly clear by Jurie Roux, the South Africa Rugby chief executive, calling the tour off would have meant financial ruin and the collapse of SA Rugby, with the series going ahead also offering the whole nation a temporary reprieve. “Things are not lekka in South Africa, but if you do well, things are hunky-dory in South Africa," Nienaber says at one point to the Springboks.

Inevitably the Erasmus complaints video is well covered, with him insisting how it leaked was all an accident (although you can judge for yourself). "Lions, South Africans, family members think you did it on purpose… f---, you know," he admits in one piece to the camera. "If you don’t win this, how are South Africa, the Springboks going to look? How do you fix that by not winning? It’s only winning that can fix that.” There could arguably be more coverage of the resulting fallout, but then who wants to dredge up that sorry episode again.

With Rassiegate and Alun Wyn Jones' impression of Lazarus, there is more than enough meat for the producers to chew on.

Given all the off-field turmoil and well-made background segments, this will make for a compelling few hours for non-rugby devotees as much as the fans who chewed their fingernails off last summer. “The legacy keeps on going. The detail gets lost, I promise you. The story stays," Erasmus remarks late on. The story of 2021 might not top 1997, but it's right up there.

  • 'Two Sides', produced by Whisper and T + W, will be shown on Sunday 19 June (10.20pm BST); Monday 20 June (10.45pm); and Tuesday 21 June (10.45pm) on ITV1

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