In much the same way that Jonah Lomu Rugby gained iconic status in the world of gaming, Living with the Lions is widely regarded as the standout rugby documentary.
With a no-holds-barred, access-all-areas approach, Living with the Lions follows the British and Irish Lions on their notorious tour to South Africa in 1997, coached by the indomitable Jim Telfer and the ‘Lion King’ Sir Ian McGeechan.
While it was the first tour of the professional era, the old amateur ethos was still alive and well, providing the filmmakers with rich and engaging footage that makes for compelling viewing.
The Living with the Lions documentary gets so up close and personal you can almost smell the deep heat coming through the screen.
And Telfer, one of the unwitting stars of the documentary with his passionate speeches and colourful language, says everything seen and heard in South Africa was totally authentic.
“It was completely new to all of us,” said the former Scotland captain.
“But to be honest, after a while you sort of forgot about it and you could see that from some of the words and expressions used by the players and coaches.
“You got up for breakfast and you got a mic stuck on your shirt and you went about with that all day. So it became part and parcel of the tour.
“It would be hopeless if you went on tour and were inhibited by having a mic on your chest.
“I wouldn’t have agreed to that. If I couldn’t have said what I said, then I would have said take it away.
“But to be fair, they were very unobtrusive and they caught all the best moments of the tour.
“It’s a brilliant film. It will last forever, I think.”
The ‘Everest’ speech
You could hear a pin drop as Jim Telfer addressed the forwards before the first test against the Springboks. Alpha male figures such as Jason Leonard and Lawrence Dallaglio wore the look of well-behaved schoolboys as they listened intently to the scholarly master tell them in no uncertain terms what to expect.
“This is your Everest, boys,” he pointed out, in a typically no-nonsense fashion. “Very few in rugby terms get to go to the top of Everest. You have the chance to do it. Being picked is the easy bit, to win for the Lions in a test match is the ultimate but you’re not going to do it unless you put your bodies on the line – each and every one Jack of you, for 80 minutes.
“They don’t respect you; they don’t rate you, the only way to be rated is to stick one on them and get right up in their faces and turn them back, knock them back, outdo what they can do … out-jump them, out-scrum them, out-ruck them, out-drive them, out-tackle them.”
Having won the first test in Cape Town 25-16, Sir Ian McGeechan knew that there would be a backlash from the beaten ‘Boks. His words, while slightly more measured than Telfer’s, have also gone down in rugby folklore. This is an excerpt from one of his unforgettable speeches.
“We’ve proved that the Lion has claws and has teeth; we’ve wounded a Springbok. When an animal is wounded it returns in a frenzy, it doesn’t think, it fights for its very existence. The Lion waits and at the right point, it goes for the jugular and the life disappears. Today, for every second of that game, we go for the jugular. Every tackle, every pass, every kick is saying to the Springbok, you are dying. Your hopes of living in this test series are going.”
Players and coaches weren't going to be able to get away with anything in 1997, not with The Honourable Lord Chief Justice Fester presiding 👨⚖️— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) January 27, 2021
Happy Birthday Keith Wood 🎉#LionsRugby pic.twitter.com/owhGYsVsrF
Keith Wood’s court sessions
Kangaroo court sessions are part of rugby touring tradition and deal with minor indiscretions such as a lack of punctuality or wearing the wrong attire. These ‘offences’ are punishable in ways set out by the tour judge, in this case, the hilarious Keith Wood.
The Ireland hooker takes great delight in commanding Northampton and England forward Tim Rodber to let the person nearest to him use his cell phone whenever the call ‘Good Girl’ was made after he was spotted using it without permission during a game.
Meanwhile, the memory of Simon Shaw, all 2.03m of him, dressed up as a Freddie Mercury lookalike, complete with big, bushy moustache and black leathers, never leaves you once seen.
Camcorders were all the rage back in the 90s, and the mischievous John Bentley was never going to pass up on the opportunity to poke fun at his team-mates once one was made available to the players.
Despite the strong messaging around togetherness and team bonding, Bentley exposes four of the Wales players and the Welsh physio working together in the gym.
“One of the great considerations is we’ve quickly, quickly rid ourselves of cliques … but all the work we’ve done is a waste of time,” Bentley says as he approaches the guilty parties, Dai Young, Scott Gibbs, Barry Williams, Scott Quinnell and Mark “Carcass” Davies. “Hey lads, can I just interrupt you training for a second? The four Home Unions have spent a lot of money trying to break up the cliques. So how come I find you five standing within an arm’s length of one another all tour?’
With the laughter and the light-hearted moments comes the inevitable shade, and bleary-eyed Bentley’s piece to camera about the sleepless night he’s had ahead of team selection for the first test hits leaves you in no doubt as to what it means to pull on the famous red jersey.
Doddie Weir’s case of ‘mistaken identity’
We’ve become accustomed to Doddie Weir’s humour over the years, as one of the bigger characters in the game, firstly as a player and now as a fund-raiser for MND, the condition he’s currently battling. And the towering Scottish second-row quickly announced himself as a joker on tour during a group meeting about dealing with media intrusion.
ITV commentator John Taylor, himself a former Lion, presented Weir with the following scenario: ‘Doddie Weir, you were seen by a group of South African journalists, in a nightclub in Port Elizabeth, around midnight on Friday … you’d had a few beers’. After a second’s pause, for comic effect, Weir responded with the deadpan one-liner: ‘Mistaken identity”. Cue a room full of laughter.