Sport on TV: Put thirty men on a war footing then throw them together seething with hatred

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NOW and then (it feels like every few weeks, though it surely can't be that frequent) a serious injury occurs on the rugby union field, with much consequent breast-beating about the sport's culture of violence. ITV's documentary, Living with the Lions, which followed the British Isles on their victorious tour of South Africa last summer, had a revealing double-take on the subject.

It depicted one or two incidents of loathsome aggression (none perpetrated by Our Brave Boys, of course), as well as showing us the techniques by which players work themselves up into the kind of mindset that allows them to believe that the physical havoc they are wreaking is somehow justified. The fact that it was the Lions doing the pumping up, not the South Africans, gave the issue an ironic twist, provoking the thought that they could hardly complain of the assaults on them, given that their opponents presumably psyched themselves up in exactly the same way. I mean, what do you expect when you put 30 men on a war footing then throw them together seething with hatred?

A few scenes gave some impression of the physical traumas visited on these hulking great bodies: a nasty shot of the blood being sucked out into a syringe out of Doddie Weir's cauliflower ear, for example. But the "Yuk" sensation gave way to less comfortable feelings when Rob Howley went off with a dislocated shoulder against Natal, crying with the pain in the dressing-room and asking in a tiny voice, "Can I lie down?"

Weir suffered further privations when an opponent stamped on his knee, making it bend at such an acute angle - shown in relentless slo-mo - that it seemed to be one of those horror injuries, like the one that ended the career of the footballer, David Busst. Weir was lucky: it was only a snapped medial ligaments, putting him out of the rest of the tour. There was a telling scene as Wood walked out of the treatment room. He's a "total body wreck," said the team doctor, James Robson, who had something of a starring role. "He's got a bad back, bad neck, two bad shoulders, a sore calf and a sore hamstring. Apart from that he's fine."

Against Orange Free State, things became deadly serious when Will Greenwood was smashed down head first on to the turf by a figure shaped like a brick wall. Greenwood was taken off, unconscious, as a voice cried in the tunnel. "What have you done? What have you done? Your mum's here. Has he broken his neck?"

"Dirty bastards," it was easy to conclude about the South Africans, but a remarkable passage involving the inspirational Irishman, Keith Wood, put the other side. At the forwards' pre-lunch team talk before the second Test, Telfer asked him about the motivational images he was carrying in his head.

"I want to hit the first scrum so viciously, with such fucking pure venom, as a front eight, that we knock them back in the hole," he replied, with a desperate yet controlled passion as they sat huddled in a knees-touching circle. "I've been seeing their eyes for the last three or four days and I want to see the fucking pain in their eyes."

His second image was even less compromising: "I want a fucking opportunity - and I know it'll happen 'cause it's the way they play - I want [Os] du Randt running with the ball. And I want to pick him up -100 and whatever fucking kilos he is - and I'm gonna shove his head in the fucking ground. And that is my image. If I can fucking kill the opposite numbers that come against me I'll fucking do it, and that's been buzzing through my veins for the last three or four days." No doubt the South African who nearly killed Greenwood had been thinking much the same thing.

Let's face it, these were men at war. Jim Telfer, the Scots forwards coach, outlined the enormity of the task. "There's battles all along the way," he said, and he wasn't joking. "There's a battle on Wednesday, there's a battle on Saturday, there's a battle next Wednesday, then there's a battle the following Saturday, there's a battle the following Tuesday, until we're fucking into the big arena, and they'll be baying for blood. Let's hope it's fucking Springbok blood. The kid gloves are off - it's bare-knuckle fucking stuff, and at the end of the day only the man left on his feet will win the fucking battle." The whispered burr gave it a trenchant emphasis.

With all that on-field belligerence, what was most surprising was the low-key nature of the team talks. Having seen film of American footballers bursting veins as they ask God for the strength to inflict acts of extreme violence on the opposition, it was odd to see that quiet determination was the Lions' chosen performance-enhancer. Before the second Test, the coach, Ian McGeechan, spoke sotto voce. "You'll meet each other in the streets in 30 years' time and there'll just be a look, and you'll know just how special some days in your life are," he said. "Go out, enjoy it, remember how you got here, and why, and finish it off and be special for the rest of your lives."

Just try not to kill anyone while you're doing it, OK?