The British & Irish Lions’ 1997 tour to South Africa was notable for being the first of rugby union’s professional era, but it also gave hitherto unseen insights to what it is like for the players and staff.
The Living With the Lions documentary brought fans into the den like never before, producing plenty of memorable moments from behind the scenes of the build-up and key incidents in the 2-1 Test series win over the Springboks.
Here, we pick out some of the moments you may have forgotten which capture the agony and the ecstasy, as well as the more light-hearted side, of life on tour with the Lions…
1. Dealing with the media
The 1997 tour saw the Lions under the microscope like they had arguably never been before. Every game was being broadcast on Sky Sports, while there was a notable press pack from Britain and Ireland, along with the South African media, scrutinising their every move.
Before flying out, the squad were put through some hypothetical scenarios by their press officer at their base in Weybridge so they would be prepared for some tough questions which may come their way.
After Martin Johnson had calmly fielded a couple about disciplinary issues, Doddie Weir was called on to explain being caught breaking curfew in a nightclub just before a Test match. Calmly, the distinctive 6ft 6in Scottish second row answered: “Mistaken identity” – to uproarious laughter from his team-mates.
2. Player cams
To get a real insight into what life was like on tour, the makers of Living With The Lions gave a camera to players to film their own insights and really get under the skin of what it was like for individuals on tour.
Few perhaps embraced this as much as John Bentley, with the England winger showing his dry Yorkshire sense of humour whenever he had the camera in his possession.
That was underlined best at one of the early gym sessions on the tour, where he went around quizzing the squad’s Welsh contingent and asking prop Jason Leonard about his workout routine.
3. Telfer gets tough
The phrase ‘no nonsense’ was seemingly invented for Jim Telfer, the former Scotland and Lions back row who was later head coach on the 1983 tour of New Zealand and assistant to Ian McGeechan in 1997.
Telfer’s particular focus this time around was on the forwards and preparing them to tackle the might of the South African scrum – an area the hosts strongly believed they had the upper hand against the tourists in.
Having called a meeting of the forwards in the squad, Telfer laid down in no uncertain terms his expectations of the packmen to be honest with him and each other, and to accept criticism from him. Then followed an insight into one of his now-infamous scrummaging sessions.
4. The agony of touring
As well as creating plenty of magical memories which will last a lifetime, at the other end of the scale Lions tours can be tough and gruelling for those involved as the Living With The Lions documentary laid bare.
Moments such as Rob Howley suffering a tour-ending shoulder injury in the clash with Durban Natal ahead of the first Test and Will Greenwood sustaining a serious head injury against Free State showed how raw it can be.
But arguably nothing encapsulated that quite as much as the moment Doddie Weir was informed by team doctor James Robson a knee injury against Mpumalanga meant he would be going home. The emotional player cam view of Weir’s last day with the squad showcased how playing for the Lions means so much as well.
5. Geech’s speeches
Lions head coach Ian McGeechan knew all about what it took to win a series in South Africa, having played on the iconic 1974 tour which saw the team go unbeaten and beat the Springboks in three matches with a draw in the fourth Test.
Fast forward 23 years and the former Scotland fly-half was the man charged with masterminding victory for Britain and Ireland’s finest, and left his side in no doubt about what it meant for them to be the latest group to wear that famous red jersey.
Although not the sort for tub-thumping speeches, McGeechan’s calmly-delivered words of wisdom pre-match were among the stand-out moments of the documentary – none more so than the one he gave the team ahead of the all-important second Test. The rest, as they say, is history.
Watch all of the documentaries from the 1997 to 2017 British & Irish Lions tours on Sky Sports in the coming weeks. ‘Up Close And Personal’, the documentary of the 2001 tour to Australia, airs next on Sky Sports Arena on Tuesday, January 12 at 10pm.
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