With Royal Mail embarking on a frustrating postal strike, it was with great relief when I checked my doormat on my return from work today to find that my Lions 2009: Living with the Pride DVD had finally been delivered.
I've been looking forward to the release of this access all areas documentary since about halfway through the Lions tour to South Africa this summer. There's something special and tantalizing about being able to sneak a peek behind the scenes of the pre-match preparations and find out what the players are really like when they're off duty. The 1997 vintage, Living with the Lions, will always be lauded as the pinnacle of sporting documentary (and rightly so) but I was eager to discover if the 2009 offering would come anywhere close.
The action starts at Pennyhill Training Camp and it's clear to see the bonds rapidly forming within the squad with Andy Powell, Donnacha O'Callaghan and Tommy Bowe quickly emerging as the jokers in the touring party. The squad relocates to South Africa and the tense build up of the warm up games is juxtaposed with moments of humour, such as Ugo Monye's irresistible chat up lines and Nathan Hines forgetting Luke Fitzgerald's name when allocating rooms.
As the tour progresses you get a real sense of the tension and weight of expectation building within the squad. Shaun Edwards pulls no punches and adds an extra dimension of intensity into every briefing and half time team talk. After the Cheetahs game (where the Lions won 26-24) the dressing room is silent and the players stony faced, such is the disappointment of coming so close to a loss. Seeing the passion of all the players and their pride in the jersey is powerful, as is the commitment and drive of all the coaching and backroom staff who work tirelessly behind the scenes.
In contrast to the action on the pitch, there is also a much lighter side in build up to the tests. Throughout the tour, the Lions are shown visiting schools and townships, and an absolutely priceless moment is watching the usually fierce Shaun Edwards teaching the children of one of the townships just how to do the Blitz defence. Other amusing moments generally occur any time Andy Powell is on the screen, and I did laugh when Tommy Bowe and Nathan Hines took it upon themselves to find a girlfriend for the surprisingly single Rob Kearney before the Sharks game. Somehow, (and despite his best efforts), the scantily clad Sharks cheerleaders seemed to be immune to Rob's Irish charms which was much to the amusement of his team mates. There are also some worthwhile highlights on the extras DVD, which includes a Soccer AM-style Skill School challenge between David Wallace and Alun Wyn Jones, Euan Murray's terrible jokes on the tour bus and Tom Croft receiving a shot in the nads from a much furrier lion.
Back on the rugby pitch, and the first two test matches are very difficult to watch knowing how the results pan out, especially after listening to the strong and passionate pre-match speech of Willie John McBride before the first test. After the final whistle of the second test match, the dressing room sits in an unbearable silence with the players exhausted and empty on every level. Being allowed in to see a moment like that made me feel like an intruder and it made for some very uncomfortable viewing.
The film reaches its climax with the third and final test, and I have to admit that I was forced to sniff back the tears whilst watching Ian McGeechan's emotional and rousing speech before the last game. As he spoke, sheer emotion and anticipation was hanging heavily in the air, and the focus and determination was clearly etched on the faces of all the players. Watching McGeechan shed a few tears after his speech really summed up the passion of what it means to be Lion and how it feels to pull on the famous red jersey. Ian McGeechan truly personifies the Lions ethos to the core, and watching him rally his pride with such a swell of emotion was truly lump in the throat time.
This DVD had me captivated from start to finish, and it really is a must for all the rugby fans who were mesmerized by the gripping series in South Africa. Brilliantly shot, it captures both the romance of a Lions tour without sparing any of the brutality. After watching this documentary of a Lions tour in the age of professional rugby, it is clear to see that the Lions spirit and purpose is in rude health and is still as relevant today as it always was.
I can't wait until the 2013 pride roar into Australia in four years time, and whilst Ian McGeechan probably won't be at the helm you can bet it will still be one hell of a ride.
PS: As a side note to all the ladies reading this blog, you might be interested to know that there are plenty of ice-baths, players sunbathing and surfing, and generally using any excuse to walk around with their tops off. You know, just in case you like that kind of thing...