Springbok docu-series Chasing the Sun is raw, human and incredibly emotional

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 Players of South Africa celebrate as Siya Kolisi of South Africa lifts the Web Ellis Cup.
Players of South Africa celebrate as Siya Kolisi of South Africa lifts the Web Ellis Cup.
Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
  • Chasing the Sun, a five-part sports documentary series details the Springbok's 2019 World Cup journey.
  • The series kicks off on Sunday 4 October at 18:00 on M-Net (DStv 101).
  • Showrunner Gareth Whittaker said the series was "raw, human and incredibly emotional".

Besides the unbelievable fly-on-the-wall footage capturing interactions inside the Springboks' change room, planning sessions, and whispered conversations between players, the showrunner behind the incredibly compelling Chasing the Sun sports documentary series that details 2019's Springbok World Cup journey, promises that it is filled with jaw-droppingly raw, personable and incredibly emotional interviews.

The moving five-episode documentary series starts on Sunday 4 October at 18:00, and is getting prime time billing on M-Net (DStv 101).

The series is filled with astounding, jaw-dropping revelations for die-hard rugby fans who want to know and find out the smallest details about the journey to triumph.

However, even casual viewers and non-rugby fans will be completely mesmerised as the series chronicles the entire journey of the Springbok team to their Rugby World Cup victory in Japan in 2019 after defeating England 32–12 in the final.

The series, that will also be available on DStv Catch Up, smartly maps the entire Springbok team journey through the use of behind-the-scenes footage, blended with incredibly raw and often emotional commentary, filmed later in studio. It includes many of the key rugby players and other figures around them.

Just like a premium Sir David Attenborough natural history series, Chasing the Sun – with brilliant effect – also takes the approach of observing from a distance as an outsider, yet simultaneously being the ultimate insider.

The series filmed in South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, Japan, Dubai, France and the United Kingdom, starts long before the World Cup and tracks the Springboks' path, detailing how coach Rassie Erasmus got the team to believe in themselves and culminating in their remarkable coronation as world champions.

Rassie appointed a new captain in Siya Kolisi and helped the Springboks to reclaim their identity. While defeat and denial were part of that difficult journey, they eventually become the world's best.

The final episode of Chasing the Sun will be broadcast on 1 November, the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Springboks' 2019 Rugby World Cup triumph.

"I've spent the last four months learning from, watching, listening to guys like Rassie Erasmus, Beast Mtawarira, Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit tell the story of what is the most wonderful journey South Africa has ever embarked on," Gareth Whittaker of T+W, co-executive producer and series director of Chasing the Sun, told Channel24 this week.

"I hope viewers love this documentary series. I've spent many days in my office crying because it's very emotional and it's a very emotional story."

"It's a credit to SuperSport, who saw this opportunity," he says. "It's a real credit to their vision and their 'get' of real storytelling. They saw the opportunity to tell this story of the Springbok team so far in advance, way before the idea of a series or a documentary series was conceived.

"Gideon Khobane (SuperSport CEO) and Mark Rayner (MultiChoice SA CEO) realised that being within the Springbok team would be hugely valuable, and so, way before we were involved, they sent in a SuperSport crew to just film and capture everything inside the team and inside the change room.

"The crew was there all the way to the final. When they came back, they had terabytes and terabytes of footage, and we then said, 'Okay, cool, how can we help you to tell this story?'. So, it wasn't our team in there, it was SuperSport guys, and to their credit, they must have had a premonition that it would have value.

"I don't think the original plan was a five-episode Springbok rugby story. I think the original plan was that 'This is a special 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," he explains.

"After the World Cup win, we sat down and said, 'Holy smokes, we've got something pretty good here, let's turn it into a documentary series', and then we began the production process.

'Unbelievable behind-the-scenes access'

"It was tough to know what to leave out," says Gareth, explaining the storytelling elements in the series.

"Firstly, there's this unbelievable behind-the-scenes access which is just remarkable. You never as a fan get to actually sit inside the change room while Rassie gives a halftime team talk ever. 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 8 hours long. We wanted to be able to tell this story as authentically as possible from as many viewpoints as possible."

"We tried to get different people who were part of the story to tell it. Rassie Erasmus is one of the executive producers of the story, and we made a commitment to the principles of this story – even before we started editing it.

"We said: 'So what are the principles that we want to uphold in telling this story?' And the driving one was authenticity. Another principle was drama. We want Chasing the Sun to be something that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, and that keeps DStv subscribers coming back for all five episodes.

"Chasing the Sun isn't just interviews – it really is not just interviews. We certainly have the interviews, but we've got unbelievable access to the change rooms and to planning sessions and to conversations between players.

"You really will see stuff that you have never seen before in Chasing the Sun. We also see a lot of South Africa. We travel to a bunch of people's homes, see their families, and see a bunch of different places within South Africa.

"The first episode probably has got the least behind-the-scenes because the team behind-the-scenes really start to gather momentum from episode 2 onwards. There are lots and lots to come, and there's a very good mix of everything," says Gareth.

'Really raw and personable and emotional'

"The players and the coaching staff were really keen to tell the story," he says. "We're fortunate that we work with incredible directors and producers who have a knack for getting people to tell their stories. They open up a hell of a lot. I don't know whether it was easy, but the team running the interviews have done an amazing job.

"Some of the responses are really 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.

Bomb squad on full blast

"Of course, there are also lots about the Bomb Squad," says Gareth about the high-impact substitutes on the bench who were assembled for key matches.

"They were critically important to winning the World Cup. Of course, there's stuff, and we learn a lot about it in Chasing the Sun.

"Chasing the Sun is incredibly insightful – both for rugby people as well as non-rugby people. The Bomb Squad and the Springboks' 6-2 bench split idea was so critical to the World Cup. There is a lot about it, why it created such a formidable side and why it worked. We unpack it a lot, and when you unpack it you're just struck that Rassie Erasmus is a genius.

"It's a uniquely South African story, but we went with the approach that in telling the story of Chasing the Sun we've got to appeal to the rugby journalist but also the non-rugby mom."

"We've held each other to account about this: It's on M-Net. It's at 6pm on a Sunday. Chasing the Sun is not just for rugby people, it's for everybody," says Gareth.

With South Africa's TV industry that doesn't have a history of making a lot of fly-on-the-wall sports documentaries, Channel24 asked if in the making of the Chasing the Sun, the production company was influenced by producers or channels like ESPN, what they've learnt from the doing this, and if this opens the door to a future of even more such high-quality local sports documentaries.

"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've asked advice along the way, and we also watched a hell of a lot.

"The upside of Covid-19 lockdown was the exceptional sports documentary content that was on SuperSport at the time. Part of my homework and my team's homework was to watch every single ESPN 30 for 30 documentary we could get our hands on and to watch every single sporting documentary in the world, and we were absolutely influenced by it.

"The second part of it is that I see such a future for sports documentary and sporting documentary filmmaking in South Africa and Africa. I really do believe that this is the beginning. I'm not sure that at its pure heart of it we will get another story like this to tell than that of the Springboks winning the World Cup but watch this space, this is just the beginning. We are fired up to do a lot more of this!"


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