The Boks’ World Cup documentary was a celebration of storytelling, emotion and raw entertainment, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG.
If winning the 2019 World Cup was the culmination of months of planning, sifting, training and bloody-mindedness, the parallel documentary project Chasing the Sun was an exercise in hope and vision.
The hope came in the dark reality that anything other than a triumph would have scuppered the project, no matter how compelling the material.
The vision came in the sense that capturing the story would offer a sublime blend of winning with clever storytelling, drama and great characters, told in a way that South Africans, mainly, would understand and appreciate.
The five-part film, which concluded on M-Net on the eve of the first anniversary of the win in Japan, was acclaimed for its authenticity and its fluid narrative.
It was raw – ‘should have been called Chasing the F***ing Sun ’, quipped one wag in reference to the industrial language – and it tackled tough issues head-on, but delicately.
As entertainment, it delivered sumptuously. Viewers were often reminded of the heroics of the Boks and the high-action moments were underscored by understated interviews with the main actors in the post-modern style of close side-on interviews designed to draw in people.
The richness of the interviews was found in the ability of the subjects to contextualise particular incidents many months later. Perspective is everything in a story such as this and the months-long gap between Japan and the production of the film served to deepen the stories and anecdotes.
Of course, South Africa is packed with remarkable stories, but few could justify the sprawling canvas offered to this epic Springbok story.
It was a high-investment project that began long before the World Cup, chiefly in getting SA Rugby to buy into the idea of the documentary. The risk was obvious – that the Boks might not go all the way – but there was also the matter of precedent: there was none, at least not locally.
Overseas, the Living with Lions documentary had told the story of the British & Irish Lions’ 1997 tour to SA and had proved a big hit. But you had to wonder whether conservative South Africans would find an appreciation for the grittier aspects of Springbok rugby.
It was difficult to know, not least because local sport documentaries are in woeful short supply. It’s an under-appreciated genre, so perhaps the success of this will stimulate filmmakers.
A team of two was given complete access to the Boks in the buildup and during the tournament, a rare thing given the sanctity of the Springbok change room and other such spaces. Sean Everett, the cameraman, was a senior producer at SuperSport who had cut his teeth on rugby and thus had an appreciation for the traditions and sensitivities.
He and Russell Belter, another established rugby trooper, shot hundreds of hours of footage and when they went through it, they knew they were sitting on TV gold.
‘Trust was always going to be the challenge. It was important not to break that trust, like looking for quick gratification with a picture or a shot. It was key to be on the sidelines and slowly work your way in,’ explained Everett. ‘We’re all a bunch of guys, so I tried to be friendly, to ensure the guys were relaxed.’.
What emerged was a product of journalism and entertainment. The journalism came in unpicking the many key moments across the great arc of the story and making them relevant and interesting beyond all the books and stories and social media chatter. The entertainment came from the characters, the players themselves.
At the centre of it all was Rassie Erasmus, who emerged as the unlikely hero of the piece. The coach’s understated delivery on camera is beguiling, so too the many small but vital things he engineered along the way. His straight talking, his grasping of the key moments and his left-field thinking were acknowledged by many of the players.
Throw in his relentless preparation and his mad passion and you’re left with a formidable, if occasionally flawed, character.
In one especially candid moment, he says of the opening match defeat to New Zealand, ‘Obviously there’s something I f***ed up somewhere.’
It’s a theme that pops up occasionally, like when he admits to once doubting Makazole Mapimpi, only to be proved wrong in the most magnificent fashion. Erasmus is likeable because he is so self-effacing and dry in his delivery. At no point is he ever windgat or triumphal, even when he would have reason to be so.
His use of strong language never comes across as gratuitous, although outsiders might be surprised at how often he drops F-bombs. The absence of vanilla adds to the authenticity of the project.
Speaking before the thunderous semi-final against Wales, he couldn’t have been more direct: ‘Let’s f**k them up physically. I know I say it every week, but last night when England f***ed up New Zealand physically, I thought, sh*t, we can do it for another 160 minutes – and we drink out of that cup.’
Erasmus was able to go where the uncomfortable truths were, admitting, too, that he misread the strong sentiment around gender-based violence. He conceded that Mapimpi’s gesture of acknowledging GBV was the right thing to do.
He was desperately hurt when racist accusations were hurled at the squad for the actions of the ‘Bomb Squad’, a case of provocateurs looking for racism when there was none.
To hear Mapimpi explain the absurd episode was to be reminded of the player’s abundant dignity and grace. He’s a fine rugby player, but an even better example of a man who overcame terrible hardship to become a hero to millions.
Indeed, a weeping Erasmus shares a poignant cameo of Mapimpi before the final that is so gut-wrenchingly sad, it might be the single most evocative moment across the five episodes.
The documentary concludes with the tense buildup and the final itself, Erasmus again coming up with the perfect refrain: ‘If you play sh*t today, you don’t have the right to drop your head. It’s not about you.’
The visuals offer a powerful reminder of the majesty of the Bok scrum as it hurts England.
‘Beast must work on Dan Cole!’ roars Erasmus into his two-way radio as the English lug replaces the injured Kyle Sinckler. Poor Cole is duly crushed.
Erasmus is nervous but satisfied at halftime. ‘Whatever you’re doing, it’s f***king unbelievable,’ he tells the forwards. ‘Give us another 40 minutes of this. I know they’re f***ing us up a little in the maul … we’re gonna work out a plan for that.’
The beauty of it is that we know how this grand story ends, with a hiss and a roar. And still we
The documentary, like the final, is magnificent and stands as a glowing tribute to a remarkable
bunch of men who chased down the sun on a remarkable day in Yokohama.
The filmmaker’s tale
‘It’s the most wonderful journey South Africa has ever embarked on,’ says Gareth Whittaker of T+W, co-executive producer and series director of Chasing the Sun.
‘I spent many days in my office crying because it’s very emotional and it’s a very emotional story.
‘When the crew came back, they had terabytes and terabytes of footage and we then said ‘OK, cool, how can we help you tell this story?’
‘I don’t think the original plan was a five-episode Springbok rugby story. It was that “This is aspecial team, it’s a team with a special culture, let’s go in and get exclusive access to this team.” That’s how it all began.’
‘It was tough to know what to leave out. Firstly, there’s this unbelievable behind-the-scenes access which is just remarkable. You never, as a fan, get to sit inside the change room while Rassie gives a halftime team talk. So we have that. But when the team came back, we sat down with each of the players, with some of the management team and we did extended interviews.
‘They really told us the story from their point of view and they told us the story of this entire journey and the 2019 World Cup. Some of those interviews went on forever. I think Rassie’s interview was eight hours long. We wanted to be able to tell this story as authentically as possible from as many view points as possible.
‘You see stuff you have never seen before. We also see a lot of South Africa. We travel to a bunch of people’s homes, see their families and a bunch of different places within South Africa. The players and the coaching staff were really keen to tell the story.
‘Some of the responses are raw and personable and emotional at times. You’ll even see in the language of it, it’s raw and it’s human and it’s real and the team did an amazing job to get the people to open up.
‘Absolutely, we were influenced. We were influenced because there are a lot of people who are really, really good at this. The Americans and ESPN are particularly good. As a team we reached out to documentary makers, we had calls with the guys who made The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team, we asked advice along the way and we also watched a hell of a lot.’
‘I really do believe this is the beginning. I’m not sure that at its pure heart we will get another story than that of the Springboks winning the World Cup, but watch this space, this is just the beginning.’
*This column first appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, now on sale!