Hearts of Lions

I can remember exactly where I was on 5 July 1997 when Jeremy Guscott scored the match winning drop goal that took the British & Irish Lions to an unlikely series victory against the World Champion and supposedly unbeatable South African rugby team. I was nervously supping Guinness in an Irish pub in the unremarkable London suburb of Willesden Green with my friend Simon and a dozen like-minded rugby fans (including one South African, who went very quiet towards the end).

I can distinctly remember the feeling as my body submitted to the panicked energy coursing through it. As we waited for the referee to blow the final whistle, pins and needles spread from the tips of my fingers up past my hands and elbows, engulfing my entire arms in a sensation normally only available through non-prescription drugs. I thought I was going to pass out. And the Guinness wasn’t responsible.

A year and a half later I received a call from Simon, the friend I had watched that wonderful game with.

“I’ve just bought a video,” he said solemnly (these were the days before DVD). “I think you better see this.”

It turns out that he had picked up Living with Lions, a straight-to-video documentary that arrived with no critical fanfare or commercial bang. Forty minutes into its mammoth 167-minute running time, I knew I was watching the greatest sports documentary and the greatest sports movie ever made.

Easily surpassing When We Were Kings‘ love letter to Muhammad Ali, Living with Lions shows the behind-the-scenes machinations that turned a group of great players into a team capable of competing with and beating the world’s best. It is honest, uncompromising, funny, frightening, inspiring, and remains absolutely essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in what separates top-level sportsmen from us mortals.

Let’s start with a bit of background. Even today The British & Irish Lions seem like an outmoded, anachronistic concept. Put together once every four years from the cream of players from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales to undertake exhaustive tours of the rugby superpowers of South Africa, New Zealand and (from 1989) Australia, on paper the British & Irish Lions had always produced great teams. In practice, it had rarely worked out that way.

As far back as 1888, British representative sides had visited the distant southern hemisphere colonies, preaching the gospel of the game of rugby football. But by the first tours of the 20th century, the pupils had become the masters, and although selection for the British & Irish team remained a great honour, the motherlands’ finest were regularly pummelled into defeat by the powerful and violence-prone warriors from South Africa and New Zealand.

The very nature of the tours – numerous games against provincial sides, softening The Lions up before the real challenge arrived with a Test Match series against the national teams of South Africa (The Springboks) and New Zealand (The All Blacks) – meant Test victories were rare. Only once, in 1974, had The Lions returned from South Africa with a series win. Captained by the oak-tough Irish second row Willie John McBride, their record 21 wins, 1 draw and 0 losses was founded on a principle of never taking a backwards step and a rarely used play, ‘99’, which simply required every Lion to locate the nearest Springbok and punch him in the face.

British Lions call 99 vs South Africa

As rugby had finally turned professional in 1995, there were those who saw a Lions tour as surplus to requirements. The physical demands on players were already stretched to breaking point. Club rugby had taken a massive step up in intensity during the ’90s, and the international schedule for all four home nations was busier and tougher than it had ever been before.

But as the viewer of Living With Lions quickly learns, the lure of pulling on the famous red shirt goes far beyond common sense. The prospect of the first tour of South Africa since the country’s return to the international sporting arena after the dismantling of apartheid proved for too great to even contemplate resisting. Every member of the 1997 squad — players, coaches and management — was a professional. But all had started as an amateur, driven by a love of the game and the challenges that it provided. Not one person on that tour would have traded the sweat and pain over the forthcoming two months for a summer recuperating at home.

But when The Lions flew to South Africa, almost 10 years ago to the day today, they were viewed as little more than cannon fodder for the mighty World Champions from South Africa. England, the finest team in the Northern Hemisphere, was still rightly considered to be well behind New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, who had all been operating at a professional standard for the best part of a decade. Wales, Ireland, and Scotland were generally considered to be making up the numbers when World Cup time rolled around.

But what sports writers in 1997 failed to recognise, and continue to miss to this day, is that a team is more than a collection of individuals. That, in a nutshell, is where the beauty of Living With Lions lies. Throughout its entire two and three-quarter hours, actual match footage is often frustratingly thin on the ground. Where the film succeeds brilliantly is in showing how, over the course of a few weeks, 35 men who had spent the previous four years kicking the shit out of each other, could come together to achieve greatness.

The film starts in low gear, with the squad, many of who are meeting for the first time outside of the combative arena of the rugby pitch, engaging in relatively mundane team-building exercises and developing their own tour rules. By the time they reach South Africa, the talk is about victory, and putting meaning behind those words. After injuries, inter-squad punch-ups, and a surprising number of laughs, the awesome honour of what it means to be a Lion gradually dawns on the team. And, in fact, what the very concept of ‘team’ actually means. Like Jerry Seinfeld pointed out, when we follow our teams, we’re essentially cheering for the shirt. The Lions are no different. But what comes through in Living With Lions is what that shirt means and what goes behind it.

“What you’re wearing – people fucking die for,” growls England prop Jason Leonard as the first pride of Lions prime themselves for battle before the tour opener against Eastern Province.

By the time they reach the cauldron of the First Test in Cape Town, the full meaning of what it means to be a Lion has become apparent. It has gone beyond representing your country and three others. It’s about reaching inside yourself and striving, clichéd as it sounds, for glory. The guiding motivational theme, often repeated, is of who each individual is playing for. Remembering who enabled each man to reach this lofty position. It’s as much an emotional journey as it is a physical one.

There’s a moment, as the undersized Lions forwards – the men who’ll have to front up against the most fearsome unit in world rugby – gather before the First Test, that can send shivers down the spine. It’s this moment that their coach, Jim Telfer, a Scotsman with borderline Tourette’s syndrome so rugged he seems to have been carved from sheer granite, delivers a speech so stirring it makes Shakespeare’s Henry V’s ‘Cry God, for Harry and St George’ soliloquy sound like a drive through order at McDonalds.

The easy bit has passed,” he growls, as the greatest British and Irish forwards of their generation sit with their heads bowed, contemplating the task ahead of them. “Selection for the Test Team is the easy bit. This is your fucking Everest boys… To win for The Lions in a Test Match is the ultimate…They don’t rate you. They don’t respect you. They only way to be rated is to stick one on them.

They are better than you’ve played against so far. They are better individually. So it’s an awesome task you have…They don’t think fuck all of us. We’re here just to make up the fucking numbers.

You have to find to find your own solace – your own drive, your own ambition, your own inner strength; for the greatest game of your fucking life.

Watching sport is a strange hobby. You’re essentially wasting huge chunks of your life sitting still while grown men and women run themselves to exhaustion pursuing a goal which, at best, is trivial; at its worst, mercenary. Living With Lions provides the perfect explanation of why we subject ourselves to this stupidity. The drive for honour and glory, diluted as it may be, still burns.

The 1997 British & Irish Lions Tour of South Africa was, in essence, a war without the tragedy and the threat of death (although England’s Will Greenwood did come frighteningly close in the game against Orange Free State). Watching the games demonstrates that these were men of virtually limitless physical courage. Watching the reality of what it took to face that challenge is inspiring.

My rugby career was finished before it started. I was too small, too slow and, most importantly, unwilling to put my head under thundering boots to ever progress past my school’s third XV. I’ll fully admit I’m wrecked with envy when I watch these men. Not because they have the adulation of millions of British and Irish rugby fans, but because every day they wake up and know they’ve touched greatness. It’s there, on film, for everyone to see.

Toughness is an overrated virtue. Mental and physical courage is a different matter entirely. I must have watched this film 20 times, and I still don’t know what turns what on the whole are mild-mannered men, who only two years previously had full-time day jobs, into disciplined, fearless warriors, risking their physical well-being for the pleasure and privilege of standing alongside each other. To have even the smallest insight into this mindset remains a unique and powerfully moving experience.

Hours before the decisive second test match, head coach Ian McGeechan delivers his final words of inspiration.

You’ll meet each other in the street in thirty years time and there’ll just be a look [between you]. And you’ll know just how special some days in your life are.

Written out it sounds cheesy. Perhaps it is. Once you see it, you’ll understand.