SINCE 1974 and that wonderful tour of South Africa I have followed the British and Irish Lions intensely and was lucky enough to write a book about them with my colleague and friend Jeff Connor. 

No book can ever capture the reality of what it’s like to be on a Lions tour, however, though one of the best sources of information for the tours has been the now traditional documentary that follows the Lions on tour, a tradition that started in 1997 with Jim Telfer making that inspirational ‘Everest’ speech in South Africa.

Fast forward to 2021 and the latest incarnation of the quadrennial documentary. It was many months in the making live and in production, but when Two Sides burst onto our screens on Sunday night my first thought at the closing credits was a firm ‘well done’ to all those named people and the next thought was that the programme was well worth the wait.

The documentary about the British and Irish Lions’ tour of South Africa last year is quite simply the best documentary I have ever seen about rugby and indeed all sport – it really is up there with the extraordinary Senna about the life of the Brazilian motor racing legend, and that’s the biggest compliment I can pay.

I am writing this on Tuesday evening before the last of three episodes is aired and I have been anticipating all day the sheer pleasure of watching the completion of a masterpiece of documentary making. The first two parts of the trilogy have been enough, however, to convince me that is one of those moments in a personal television history that I know I won’t forget – it really is that good. Sure it’s not perfect, but the production team has gone much further than anybody could reasonably expect in the investigation and portrayal of what we now know were unique events  over which Covid-19 hung like a hopefully never-to-be-repeated thundercloud.

The filming is of the highest quality so that you can really feel the intensity of the hits on the field of play and sense the many tensions off the pitch in both camps. I would counsel the faint-hearted and those who do not like bad language that this is rugby in the raw, and all the better for it, and while individuals come to the fore, you get a real sense of the two teams and their fans as a whole. 

I’ll confess I was tipped off by a South African pal who had watched the three-parter series in Cape Town recently that this documentary was something special, not least because the usual format of focusing only on the Lions was torn up and we got insight into both camps as never before. In the Lions dressing room, for instance, I learned one of the tour songs was a raucous version of the Bonnie Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond in which they all joined in. 

There were also personal revelations from the likes of Josh Adams and his fiancée who was heavily pregnant with their daughter when he left for South Africa. That was genuinely moving stuff.            

It was the revelation of just how close the tour came to being cancelled that really amazed me. When I wrote at the time that the tour was in grave danger of being called off, I was poo-poohed by those who thought they knew better. Well as General Melchett almost says in Blackadder, you should never ignore a poo-pooh and so now I can poo-pooh them right back. Even I didn’t realise, however,  how close cancellation came, and the Springboks’  Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus confirmed it in the first episode. 

Allowing for his drama queen tendencies, Erasmus was convincing with his account of how, with Covid rampaging through their squad and their test against Georgia called off, Erasmus and the players, coaches and and management held a meeting with South Africa Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux and told him they couldn't go ahead with the tour.

"Then we basically gave up," Erasmus says on camera. "I called the players together and said: 'Guys, I'm going to call these guys and say the tour's off... if we've got stay here again and miss that SA A game. We would basically have played one match against Georgia'.

"I'm going to f*****g phone Jurie now and ask him, because we can't do it man. We're playing in two days' time."

We also learned that the Lions and Springbok management held a Zoom meeting over the future of the tour, with Lions’ head coach Warren Gatland claiming that "he (Erasmus) was saying his players were going to walk out of the squad".

So the possible cancellation was real, as was the virtual imprisonment of both squads to avoid Covid-19. No wonder they didn’t always sparkle on the field.