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In the fast-paced world of sports documentary filmmaking, nobody has carved out a niche as distinct as James Gay-Rees.

The producer behind the acclaimed Netflix series Formula One: Drive to Survive has now set his sights on 2023's unforgettable Guinness Men’s Six Nations Championship, bringing his unique Box to Box Films treatment to the world of rugby union in the much-anticipated Full Contact, released this month on Netflix. 

A former player for London Welsh during his youth, the dream of capturing the essence of the historic Championship had lingered for years, eventually materialising as Box to Box’s latest venture for the streaming giant.

Watch the official trailer for Six Nations: Full Contact.

The Guinness Six Nations, with its intense team dynamics and diverse national identities, presented a distinctive challenge for Gay-Rees and his team, reminiscent of their work on the Tour de France (Unchained) in terms of both events’ compressed timeframes. While F1, tennis (Break Point) and golf (Full Swing) feature individual athletes, rugby's team-orientated structure demanded a nuanced approach to spotlighting players in a squad, balancing the limelight between charismatic leaders and those of a quieter disposition.

"The more outgoing, bigger characters naturally gravitate towards the process," Gay-Rees reflects, acknowledging the delicate navigation required to capture the essence of a sport where teamwork often overshadows individual stardom. “You can’t follow every single player in a squad, so you’ve got to work out who and how and why.”

Read about the premiere of Six Nations: Full Contact.

Gaining unparalleled access to the competition and its teams, Gay-Rees observed the often stark contrasts between each team’s approach to the annual tournament. Those differences form part of the show’s storytelling, ensuring a narrative richness across the episodes.

“All of the teams are at different stages of their cycle, and they all have different management and coaching styles,” says Gay-Rees of the classes of 2023. “You’ve got to respect that no two set-ups are the same within the Six Nations, so a one size-fits-all approach won’t work. You have to slightly adapt and shapeshift to accommodate their needs.

“What’s great about the competition and therefore the show is that the DNA of the French team is incredibly different to the DNA of the Scottish team, for example. So from my point of view, that made it fascinating to understand and convey these wildly different countries to an audience. Then you make a virtue of that by contrasting all these different hues, literally down to the way they play rugby. It’s a real gift.”

As a veteran producer of a panoply of critically and commercially successful films and TV series, Gay-Rees recognises the significance of Drive to Survive as a calling card – a series which itself wouldn’t have been made without Senna, his documentary about the tragic fate of the titular Brazilian Formula One driver. Each of Box to Box’s eclectic projects – from Amy to Diego Maradona, to the megahit sports series we binge on today – have built upon the success of the last, and the red thread connecting them all is personality. Drive to Survive, rooted in access and a fly-on-the-wall perspective, has become a beacon for the media industry, paving the way for Full Contact.

And yet the landscape of sports documentaries remains challenging terrain. Gaining access to athletes in the midst of relentless schedules is a perpetual struggle, especially with the condensed nature of a competition like the Guinness Six Nations. Gay-Rees's team has learned to adapt, balancing the need for compelling footage with respecting the sanctity of the team environment.

“The Guinness Six Nations is a very short competition in comparison to Formula One, which is ten months or so long,” explains Gay-Rees. “Trying to get access to players during a tournament that runs for only five or six weeks is very difficult: the players are either in camp or they’re spending time with their families.

“You’re also trying to respect the coaches’ wishes that you don’t upset the status quo of the team room. The team we have working for us by and large know when to put the camera down, when to make themselves disappear, but at the same time we want to keep pushing for that access.”

With Drive to Survive, Gay-Rees and his company reshaped the narrative around Formula One, offering viewers a glimpse behind the curtain of a sport often shrouded in glamour. Rugby too is a sport that sometimes suffers from misconceptions. Full Contact aims to demystify stereotypes, portraying rugby players as, in the words of Gay-Rees, “people who play rugby”: individuals with the same hopes, dreams, and daily anxieties as anyone else.

As for Gay-Rees himself, he likens his role to that of a team principal in Formula One – a position that requires a blend of creativity, problem-solving, and a dash of legal acumen. His passion for rugby shines through as he proudly declares his Welsh heritage, a sentiment that further fuels his desire to present the human side of these superhuman athletes to a global audience.

In exploring the Guinness Six Nations, with all its intrigue and clashes of national passion, Full Contact invites audiences, rugby fans or not, to witness the lives of those who play the extraordinary game, laying bare the untold stories of what it takes to give your everything on the field.

“To see what these guys go through to build themselves up for a match, to what they then do on the pitch, and the aftermath, is remarkable and underappreciated,” Gay-Rees says. “It’s not something we’ve seen before and it’s a bit overdue actually.

“It’s an extraordinary thing to do with your life because it’s so intense.”

Six Nations: Full Contact will be available to stream worldwide on Netflix on Wednesday 24th January.