As a child I used to play a lot of rugby. This was in no small part due to the fact that I was quite fat and not very good at football, but rugby seemed to come a bit more naturally to me. Based on that description, my position was a second row lock or, for those whose only exposure to rugby is watching England play, the really tall ones who are relatively near the middle of the scrums (or cuddles as my wife calls them). As I moved up the age groups the other players became progressively taller than me, to the point where the guy next to me was a clear foot taller and the scrums were lopsided. I got moved into the tight head prop position (the short fat guys right in the middle), and to this day I attribute this as the fact that I am the same height now that I was when I was 15. Eventually a love of chips and smoking, as well as a repulsion to exercise forced me out of the game but, in the same way fat skinheads with Chelsea FC tattoos on their neck and 20 Egyptian B&H in his pocket think that they could still make it because they’re a bit good on FIFA, I still think I could play for England because I was a legend on Jonah Lomu Rugby.
Released in 1997, the game made an appearance on Playstation, Sega Saturn (the console I always wanted), and the PC. It contained the players and teams from the 1995 Rugby World Cup (won by South Africa for those who are interested), where the games namesake; Jonah Lomu, had destroyed an England team containing several star players almost single handed. At the time, he was the mid nineties equivalent of what David Beckham is now. This dominance was reflected in the game the same way that Tiger Woods is in the golf series; almost unstoppable. The mix of teams from the world cup was quite diverse, so you could play as any of the Southern Hemisphere super powers (Australia, New Zealand or South Africa), the teams from the 5 Nations series (before Italy made it the 6 Nations) like England, Scotland, France etc, or some of the countries you may not realise had a rugby team like Sri Lanka and Thailand. This often led to some very one sided matches, but that was all part of the fun.
For anyone who ever played this game, there are normally two things that they remember fondly. The first of which is, rather surprisingly for a rugby game, the actual game play. Rugby is a notoriously complicated sport, with a variety of strategies, styles of play and set pieces. This leads to the need for a considerable number of controls, often too many to be programmed into a computer game with any degree of success. EA have tried several times without any stand out efforts, which goes to show that even the big guns of sport simulation games can struggle with its intricacies. Between Codemasters and Rage Software however, they have succeeded in producing a game which has the essence of the sport; whatever phase of play you are in the controls are there and at the ready with the options you’re going to need. This ease of use compliments smooth running, passing and tackling, which gives the opportunity to immerse yourself more and more in the sporting mind set. The AI was surprisingly intelligent as well; if you threw a dummy and found yourself clean through with only the full back to beat, there was generally a team mate waiting for the pass on the outside to run in for a try in the corner. This then led to the opportunity for a conversion, and the wind affected dynamics meant that you actually had to put some thought into your aim, and felt the reward when the ball went between the posts.
The second thing that most people remember, often most fondly, is the commentary. Lifted straight from the real world, Bill Beaumont and the late great Bill McLaren not only leant to the sense of realism and immersion, they also added a comic touch with some truly memorable sound bites. Many people fondly remember, as the players dive into a ruck, Bill McLaren exclaiming “he’s digging in like a demented mole there!”, and equally as the players jumped up for a line out “He’s Leaped like a salmon!”. My favourite though was actually a player’s name; it’s an issue which affects modern iterations of both the FIFA and Pro Evo franchises, but it’s often hard to get the context behind saying a player’s name right when you’re pre-recording. You might have one spoken at regular volume and tone for when there’s nothing exciting going on, and one for when they’re about to bury the ball in the top corner. Depending on where the payer is standing on the pitch, the game sometimes get confused and the commentator screams the players name as he gently taps the ball back to his own keeper. In Jonah Lomu Rugby I would always play as England, and the winger at the time was Rory Underwood. It would appear that Bill McLaren only managed one recording as, wherever he was on the pitch, when Rory got the ball Bill would scream “UNDERWOOD!!!”, which would always make me smile.
Up until recently there has been nothing that has even come close to imitating the game of rugby even half as well as Jonah Lomu managed and, ironically, that is because there has been a sequel. There has been much buzz about the game, although strangely it doesn’t appear to have taken off in the UK in anything like the way it has in Australia and New Zealand. In some ways it shouldn’t be a surprise; football is king in the UK whereas the oval ball is still a much bigger ticket in the southern hemisphere. I also wonder, as we are at a point in time where classic games are being updated in the form of an HD remake (Hitman and Age of Empires to name but a few), if someone somewhere isn’t missing a massive trick and should take a look at giving the original the shiny treatment. A quick scan of YouTube shows that it isn’t the rose tinted spectacles which are making me remember the game so fondly, it was the fact that it was just great fun to play.