Written by: Rik

Date posted: October 29, 2011


The French are winning. And it’s bloody raining, too.

I used to hate rugby. We were forced to play it at school for what seemed like the entirety of my childhood, and the whole experience could best be described as traumatic. Twice a week we’d be herded into the unforgivingly-cold Yorkshire countryside in order to hurl an oval ball at each other, dive into mud, and generally indulge in an uncomfortable amount of physical contact with other male children, as a supposedly responsible adult – an educator of the nation’s youth, no less – barked stern instructions while trying unsuccessfully to conceal how much he was enjoying it all.

To be honest, I don’t think we were ever even taught the rules, which might explain why I never had the slightest clue what was going on. In fact, the only specific piece of advice that I can recall now is being told, “You have to put your hard parts into their soft parts”. I think it related to tackling, or the scrum, or something, but for some reason it was the words themselves which stuck with me – perhaps because they were incredibly disturbing at the time, and have become even more so with each passing year. Whatever the intentions of the middle-aged man who said them, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t for it to be the only thing anyone took away from close to eight consecutive years of being taught how to play a particular sport – and it certainly wasn’t prefaced with “If you only take one thing away from my lessons, boys, it’s this:” but anyway – THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED. In my case, anyway.

Naturally, I converted this bitter childhood experience into a fierce loathing of the sport itself and carried this around with me like a handbag full of anger, ready to wallop into the face of any unsuspecting fellow adult who might innocently ask me whether I watched the Six Nations match at the weekend. Recently, though, while quite enjoying a World Cup encounter that happened to be on TV, I had an epiphany and realised that to continue to harbour this grudge was pretty childish – much like my refusal to return to the town where I went to school (and, incidentally, enjoyed a fairly happy, normal childhood) for no particular reason other than the vague threat of bumping into people I used to know. (My wife was baffled by this, especially once I eventually lifted the embargo and we went there: “This is a really nice little town,” she said. “I know,” I replied, feeling like the petty, small man that I undoubtedly am. We had lunch there, too – it was very pleasant).

Kicking a conversion is largely straightforward, although the exaggerated effect of the wind on your kicks occasionally makes you look very silly.

So: rugby. I used to hate it, now I don’t mind it. In fact, straight after watching that World Cup match I immediately started wondering whether there’d been any decent rugby games that I could get my hands on. Rugby, like my favourite sport, cricket, tends to get a bit of a raw deal, and instead of the annual update afforded to football titles, you only get a game every couple of years or so (if you’re lucky), rush-released in order to coincide with a major event like the World Cup so as to appeal to the casual dimboid fans like me who watch a match and immediately experience the impulse to buy a game as well as the genuine, long-suffering fans of the sport who’ll buy it just because it’s new and they’ve waited so very patiently for it. As with cricket games, they’re usually a mixed bag in terms of quality, and they’re usually either reviewed by someone who doesn’t like the sport and assumes no-one else does, or by someone who pretends to know something about it but actually doesn’t.

Being on the receiving end of bad reviews of cricket games sends me into a furious rage, so seeing as rugby and I have made up and are friends now, I’ll try not to make this one fall into either of the categories described above. As I don’t know that much about rugby, I’m not best qualified to say whether Rugby Challenge 2006 is going to do it for you if you really, really like rugby (although I think I can make an educated guess at the answer). However, I do know what it’s like to conjure up thoughts of enjoying basketball, with minimal prompting from external influences, going to a shop and buying an old EA game for a couple of quid, installing it, and then regretting the whole thing after about five minutes’ play. So, easily-led and tight-fisted fans of games of sports you don’t know much about – come with me.

My attention was first drawn to Rugby Challenge 2006 because it was developed by Swordfish Studios, who also came up with the flawed-but-enjoyable Brian Lara International Cricket 2005. Their approach to cricket was to present a slightly cartoony, more exciting version of the real thing without compromising it too much, and a similar method seems to have been applied here. Essentially, the more eye-catching elements of rugby – running, passing, kicking – are the ones over which you have most control, while the less romantic technical stuff is either simplified or automated. Your success in scrummages and mauls is dictated by a mini-game (press a button when the dot’s in a certain place) while rucking involves pressing one button to add extra men to the ruck and another to get them to go away again. It’s all very easy, and if you don’t even know what scrummages, rucks and mauls are in the first place, don’t worry – there’s a handy tutorial that’ll go through the basics with you.

Put your hard parts into their soft parts…

With the ball in hand, passing is controlled by the joypad’s shoulder buttons – the left one to pass left, and the right one to…well, you know – while the face buttons control kicking. The passing and running game works well and it’s pretty hard to mess up unless you pass when there’s no-one there to receive, or you get your lefts and rights mixed up, or both. In fact, the whole thing’s pretty easy to get the hang of, and soon you’ll be moving the ball about with ease, either bruising your way up the pitch with your forwards or finding space with a pacy winger on the way to the try-line.

Defending, on the other hand, is a little bit more hit and miss, with the general fast-pacedness [I give up – Rik’s English teacher] of the action sometimes making it difficult to line-up tackles. If anything, though, the frantic and slightly unpredictable nature of this side of the game makes it more exciting, particularly against stronger opponents, and when some fairly desperate hammering of the sprint and tackle buttons successfully foils an attack deep in your own half, it’s almost as much of an achievement as scoring a try yourself. The same can’t always be said of defensive duties in, say, a football game, for example.

Still, there’s a strong suspicion that many of the subtleties of the real sport are absent here. Even kicking is largely redundant (save for conversions, which are effected by a predictable but competent system of gauges for direction and power) – the game is so fast you rarely have much time to get a kick away, and even if you do, there’s not much time to line it up. So controlled, tactical kicking is pretty much out – and that goes for your opponents, too, which means that the full backs on either side have very little to do all game. The good old up-and-under is even trickier to pull off than a standard punt, and drop-goals also have a fairly poor success rate. You might give these things a go when you’re in a fairly comfortable lead against a weaker team, but against stronger opponents, it’s usually safer to just keep the ball in hand and recycle possession (although a cheeky grubber can be effective – see Walkthrough: Grub and Run). Oh, and you can forget about kicking too many penalties, because infringements are rare, with knock-ons and forward passes occurring only occasionally, and seemingly at random.

So, fun as it is, Rugby Challenge 2006 is a little lacking in depth. While there’s plenty there to sustain your interest throughout a short Six Nations tournament, and even a full World Cup, it’d be a hardy soul indeed who took advantage of the career option, which allows you to build up a team from a lowly bunch of no-hopers to champions of, er, something in a similar manner to the Master League option in Pro Evolution Soccer. Unlike PES, though, there’s little motivation to play through dozens and dozens of matches when the game itself is fairly limited. Other challenges, such as the chance to re-enact famous matches from the history of the sport, are slightly more digestible.

Commentary occasionally makes a borderline-litigious reference to a player’s physical appearance. Here’s the ‘perma-tanned’ Gavin Henson.

As often seems to be the case with modern non-EA titles, the presentation is cheerily low-budget. The graphics are perfectly serviceable from a distance, but close-ups reveal chunkiness and rough edges on the player models, as well as some thoroughly disturbing facial likenesses. The teams aren’t all licensed, either – the home nations are all present and correct, along with authentic 2005-era kit, but the others boast generic kit and made-up names – something I hadn’t really noticed until I found myself wondering whether there really is a South African player called ‘Dan Hedgepath’ (there isn’t).

Sound-wise, the matches themselves are sorely lacking in atmosphere, with crowd noise fairly subdued, while the standard of the commentary hovers somewhere between unintentionally amusing and just plain embarrassing, whether it’s the BBC’s John Inverdale declaring a player to have “safe hands” just as he drops the ball, or ex-England scrum half Dewi Morris’s bizarre appraisal of a player “who would tackle his own mother” to get the ball back (presumably only in the unlikely event of her being on the opposing side in a professional rugby match, though, right?) – it’s the usual story of reasonable talent being hindered by a poor script and flawed implementation. Mention must also be made of the terrible menu music, which alternates between cheesy acoustic guitar and obnoxious drum and bass.

Still, what the hell, I liked it. It may be simple and shallow, but it’s playable and responsive, and I even found the rough edges endearingly amusing rather than annoying. Rugby Challenge 2006 is pretty much everything I could have wanted from a rugby game after I decided I wanted to play one. It provides undemanding excitement for anyone who likes rugby enough to seek out an old, low-cost game for a quick blast, but not enough for anyone who knows, or wants to learn, the rules and intricacies of the real-life sport.