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Rugby 06

Leader of the pack.

Somewhere high up in EA’s crystal towers, somebody is sleeping well tonight, safe in the knowledge that gaming’s equivalent of Skynet is one step closer to global domination. Because to even the most casual of fan it’s clear that there’s no better console version of Rugby Union than EA’s spanking new shiny version. Case closed. Job done. Captain licensing money has saved the day again.

But at least EA has won this battle through sheer development class rather than financial brute force. Yes it boasts the poncy FIFA graphics engine and yes it looks fantastic as a result (if anything, Rugby 06 could well be the best looking sports game on this generation of console), but there’s far more to this beast than simply flashy visuals, slick presentation and yet another increasingly mainstream soundtrack.

Rugby 06 works because it boasts that sporting Holy Grail mix of simple controls and satisfyingly deep tactics. Running, passing, kicking, barging, shoving, swerving: pretty much all the standard rugby moves are quick and easy to come by. There are some slight hang ups - the lack of shoulder buttons on the Xbox means lateral passes have been switched to the face buttons, which doesn’t feel quite so intuitive, and continually switching between players when you’re on the defensive takes some time getting used to - but for the most part, getting a good game of egg-chasing out of Rugby 06 is easy stuff.

Go Johnny go go, go go go!

Then you’ve got your advanced controls on top. Master these and Rugby 06 really starts to feel like the real thing. Try a sly hand off to your forwards, as opposed to a long pass out to the wings, and watch your pack roll on as they build momentum. Send players off on a set play from a scrum to confuse your opponent. Take a quick free kick to catch napping defenders off guard. Clatter an opponent with a high tackle (and risk the sin bin in the process). Or, and this is our favourite new control tweak, make a last ditch pass as you’re being hauled to the floor and keep an otherwise dead phase of play rolling. Admittedly most of these techniques are weighted in favour of attacking play, but if you’re going to put rugby on consoles better to make it fast and free-flowing than a plodding series of collapsed mauls and muddy scrum man-mountains, right?

Of course, if you already own Rugby 2005 you’ll know a lot of this already. After some pretty shoddy EA rugby games of late, last year’s redesign really set a solid starting point for EA’s now annual commitment to the sport. Rugby 06 simply builds on this in time honoured EA fashion. In other words, add four or five new features, get rid of at least one ropey idea then update the team rosters. Bang. That’ll be forty new pounds thank you very much.

Oi, Blue 15 - you’re running the wrong way mate.

Which begs the question, if you already own Rugby 2005, is it worth upgrading to this?

Definitely, yes. Especially if you enjoyed Rugby 2005. Forget what certain corners of the popular gaming press have been saying about Rugby 06 being too similar to last year’s. Not to point fingers, but they clearly know nothing about rugby. Quite apart from the massively improved graphics and presentation, the new moves and tactics alone add a whole new element of strategy and realism to the game. Even the AI has been favourably tweaked. Not quite as far as we were hoping for, but at least packs don’t move around quite so much like shoals of fish anymore. OK, so yes, it does play similarly, but there are plenty of subtle differences too, and no one moans about that when it comes to annual PES updates.

But more importantly than all that, and this is the key element all REAL rugby fans need to consider, Rugby 06 finally offers the full range of Premiership, Celtic and Southern Hemisphere club teams, not to mention exhibition sides such as the Barbarians and New Zealand Maoris. That’s, like, three times as many sides as Rugby 2005. To be fair, Ubisoft’s Rugby Challenge 2006 includes most of these teams as well, but without the benefit of EA’s huge bag of official license snaffling money.

The Welsh scrum: and there’s Charlotte Church at the bottom.

If you’re well into your rugby, picking your way through Rugby 06’s huge range of licensed tournaments and leagues is a bit like walking through a giant sweetshop, stacked to the rafters with Josh Lewsey shaped wine gums. Even fairweather fans will be impressed by the range of options on offer. But it’s the chunky, Master League style career mode on top is that really set things off (which, incidentally, works all the better now Rugby 06 features a system of highly desirable and distinctly skilful "impact" players in each team).

The only obvious missing component is an online mode, but perhaps that’s more to do with rugby’s limited appeal (relative to football that is) than any kind of technical issue. A shame really, because this is a first class rugby game and it deserves a first class following across the world. Don’t worry peanut huggers, we’ll out football yet.

8 / 10