Rugby: it's a lot better than football, isn't it? You can drink in the stands, play doesn't halt every five seconds for a petulant team riot against the referee and England are still World Champions (just about). If you don't agree with that then you're a) stupid, b) a hooligan, or c) probably both. (And if that doesn't kick off some healthy debate in the forums then we've pretty much proved that porn really is all the internet's good for.)
The other thing about rugby is that it's clearly nowhere near as popular as football, mostly because it's about a million times more complicated. So the fact that we've got not one but two new rugby games to coincide with this year's Six Nations tournament could be seen as something of overkill. After all, the population of rugby fans who also own consoles is going to be marginal at best.
Still, if you ARE a rugby fan - and this particular correspondent is - you've probably gone orgasmic over the current crop of digital egg chasing. So much so that it's now less of a case of "is Rugby Challenge 2006 any good?" and more a question of "is it any better than EA's Rugby 06?" And the answer to that is a crushingly emphatic no.
On the plus side, at least they've made Rugby Challenge 2006 easy to play. If you're going to give developer Swordfish Studios credit for anything, it's that it's taken the most convoluted ball sport known to man and turned it into a videogame that just about anybody can pick up and play.
You pick up the ball, you pass down the wings using the trigger buttons, you dodge the incoming tackles and you cross the line for a try. It's literally as simple as that. There are a few handy tutorials to get you into the swing of things, but providing you know how to hold a joypad the right way up you'll get a good, flowing game of rugby in no time at all.
Given Swordfish's long and impressive rugby heritage (this is the development team responsible for the legendary Jonah Lomu Rugby on PSone) you'd expect a fun, easy game, and that's what you get. The issue here is that it's too simple and as a result totally lacking in the depth.
The fact is, very little has been done to improve things since Swordfish's last rugby effort (the reasonably entertaining World Championship Rugby, released nearly two years ago just in time to miss the whole England World Cup furore). By altering the scrum and maul controls from button-bashing to reaction tests Swordfish thought it must have made things infinitely more tactical, but it's completely missed the point. It's not the technical rugby aspects that needed improving (they're far too involved to properly recreate in a game); it's the running, passing and kicking areas that needed work and virtually nothing has been done to better them. Where are the shimmying runs, the hand offs, the tactical kicks into touch and the up-and-unders? Yeah, you can kick the ball in Rugby Challenge 2006, but next to just recycling the ball out to the wings it's virtually redundant.
The other big problem with Rugby Challenge 2006 is that it's hands-down one of the ugliest sports game ever to appear on this generation of consoles. Getting thirty-plus men to move smoothly on screen at once is always going to be a challenge, but did it have to be at the expense of so much player detail? Seriously, it looks like half the players were baptised in the chip shop by mistake. The audio isn't much better either, John Inverdale's commentary amounting to nothing more than a few perfunctory observations at best. This really is aesthetics by the numbers.
At least there's plenty of content to Rugby Challenge 2006, far more so than ever appeared in World Championship Rugby. The World and European club competitions are still there, obviously, but it's the addition of the Premiership, Celtic and Super 14 teams to the scrum that really add weight to the package, especially if you're a regular rugby watcher (it's like FIFA suddenly remembering to include Arsenal if you're after a football analogy). There's a decent range of cups and leagues to plough through, a throwaway "classic match" mode and a passable take off of PES's Master League for those looking to indulge in some long-term gaming. Not groundbreaking, but you gets your money's worth, certainly.
Whether you'll want to physically play it all depends. Once you've figured that the best way to score is still simply a case of getting the ball out to your fastest winger it kind of takes the 'challenge' out of Rugby Challenge 2006. Even two-player games are a let down, with most matches decided by a combination of who has the stronger pack and the swifter backs. It might be a great title for those who never played a console game before, let alone a rugby console game, but this lacks too much of the real sport's depth and complexity to be anything other than a five minute distraction. If I were a rugby bore, I'd probably finish with some pithy comment about kicking this one into touch.
Damn it, I have.