- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 3, 2005

Most sports games expect you to understand at least the basic tenets. EA Sports’ Rugby 2005 won’t even let you play until it’s certain of it.

Before you start, the game forces you to take a tutorial that explains the controls and the basics of the sport. The terms scrum and ruck might not be familiar to most American sports fans, but they form the heart of the sport, best described as part soccer, part American football and part WWE.

OK, the last one’s a stretch, but any sport with hookers and props has to be entertaining. (Both are positions, by the way.)

By the time the lessons have finished, you will know that a try (think touchdown) is worth five points, a place kick (think extra point) two and a drop-goal kick (think a punt worth points) three. What you won’t know is how many teeth your hooker lost in the scrum, but that’s probably a bit too much detail anyway. And anything you haven’t picked up from the quick tutorial probably can be found in the practice mode or the short video available from the main menu.

All this probably has you wondering: Why would anyone buy a sports game that feels the need to explain itself like this?

Well, apparently billions of people around the world, many of them also missing teeth, love rugby. And apparently EA Sports, which has produced this game for international markets for a while, felt rugby had made enough of an in-road in the United States that you should be able to find it at your local Best Buy starting with the 2004 version. After all, the proliferation of sports channels available on cable and satellite feeds have created an audience even here, and it’s enough like football to spark some interest from the couch jocks.

Of course, those same couch jocks probably will wait until August to buy Madden. Out of those billions of rugby fans, maybe 12 of them (OK, 13) live in the United States, and probably only two aren’t gents with British-sounding accents who frequently watch games in some pub.

A majority of gamers will be able to tell you the Philadelphia Eagles’ Donovan McNabb will be on the cover of Madden this fall, while a 10-minute search of the Internet couldn’t produce the name or team of the guy on the cover of the U.S. version of Rugby 2005.

The game features a number of national teams, including that of the United States (who knew?) and clubs from Australia, New Zealand and England, including the British Lions. Supposedly the actual players are represented, presumably including the guy from the cover, but familiarity is an inherent flaw here.

For the most part, however, HB Studios, which created the game for EA Sports and also is working on Cricket 2005 (how thrilling, my good chap), manages to overcome the lack of familiarity by making the game enjoyable. It plays and looks sort of like a soccer title, with a lot of back-and-forth action and quick passes, only there’s plenty of violent, crunching tackles.

The controls are classic EA Sports: left thumbstick for movement, right thumbstick for special moves, top triggers for pitches and so forth. Kicking during the action can be tricky, mostly because the left-to-right perspective doesn’t allow a great angle from which to aim. And the scrums simply are button-mashing fun.

But is fun enough for the casual American sports fan? Probably not. You can’t really brag about scoring 15 tries in a game with some Number 8 from Wales to your friends during lunch the way you can about rushing for 2,000 yards with Michael Vick on Madden’s hardest level.

Though EA Sports’ Rugby 2005 can be an entertaining diversion, it’s unlikely anyone but a true aficionado will find it engaging in the long term.

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