Four years, countless embarrassing defeats and an almost bionically rebuilt Johnny Wilkinson later, and England stand nervously on the brink of what could be history's most unsuccessful attempt ever at retaining a Rugby World Cup title. Such has been the lack of the enthusiasm and general sporting press buzz over England's chances in the run up to the France-based tournament that you could be forgiven for thinking it was six years, let alone six weeks, until the competition started.
It might go some way to explaining the somewhat quiet launch to EA's latest Rugby game then, being as Rugby 08 is the official game of the 2007 Rugby World Cup and all. Of course, you might also put that down to Rugby's lack of popularity compared to football, but then we'd have to obviously have to ignore you for being so completely wrong about what is definitely the UK's most entertaining ball sport.
It's a shame, because Rugby 08 is a very good sports game indeed. Like previous games in EA's Rugby stable (the last being Rugby 06) Rugby 08 genuinely understands the sport it's based on. This is a game about possession, territory and momentum, rather than any kind of ridiculous, American Football-style field-length punts and runs. Understand Rugby, and you'll understand Rugby 08. Throw in EA's trademark polish and high-production values, together with the series' amazingly well conceived pick up and play controls, and you have a game no self-respecting rugby fan will want to be without.
Why? Because this is the perfect example of how an 'annual' franchise update should be done. The changes made to the core gameplay since Rugby 06 are almost all positive, making for a much tighter, more competitive match of rugby. Being able to offload the ball in a tackle - the desperate art of passing the ball to a teammate as a burly defender pushes you face first into the dirt - was one of Rugby 06's best additions, but it ended up an over-used and overly-powerful skill. In Rugby 08, offloads require not only improved timing, but better tactical awareness to ensure you always have at least one team member close by to act as a receiver. Insist on sprinting for glory at the expense of ignoring your fellow scrum buddies, and all you're going to end up with is an isolated winger, a crowd of over-eager defenders and yet another turnover.
Defenders don't constantly stray offside anymore; instead, the computer simply runs them back into an onside position for you, thereby removing one of the most annoying problems of any Rugby Union game you'd care to mention. Drop goals are much easier to pull off, making them a far more viable method of scoring, to the point where they're almost preferable to going for a try. Quick penalties and line-outs feel less like a novelty and more like a genuine tactical play. And passing a short ball from a ruck to a forward, rather than out to the wing, actually works now, rather than just falling uselessly to the ground as it often did in previous games. Try this with a team blessed with powerful flankers and you'll find yourself steaming through defensive lines like a hot knife through liquid butter.
Likewise the set-piece attacks that were introduced to Rugby 06 have been improved as well, and not just in a 'there's more of 'em' kind of way either (although there are plenty more, necessitating you to pre-select your favourites at the same time as choosing your team). Again these are activated by tapping the D-pad during rucks, but in a really nice touch, you'll often have to wait for your backs to organise themselves first, particularly if you've pulled them out of position or if it's an especially intricate attack. As with real rugby, this means you may need to hold onto the ball in the ruck just that little bit longer, thereby giving your opponent the chance to bind more people to their side of the ruck and increase the chance of the turnover. It all comes down to a delicate balancing act of how many men you want to commit to the ruck and how long you can wait before passing the ball back, proving that Rugby 08 is at last starting to get to grips with some of the more tactical nuances that make the real game so interesting to watch.
To counter the improved attacking set-plays, players can now change their defence line-up on the fly as well, again using a quick tap of the D-pad. It's another useful addition, but to use it to its fullest you'll need to know exactly what your opposition is planning simply by recognising the way their backs switch positions across the pitch. Deep stuff then; perhaps a little too deep for your average, frantic ten-minute run around.