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How video games can reignite World Rugby

C. Heffler. G. Nawali. M. Zwicker.

These aren’t household names and might not register for even the most diehard rugby fans.

Some believe they might not even be real players.

But if you were the proud owner of a Playstation 2 in the naughties, I might have just unlocked a core memory for you.

The above names were the unsung heroes of one of rugby’s greatest off-field exports – EA Sports Rugby 08 – and represent a key area in which our code has dropped the ball – video games.

As an inner-city Brisbane kid, I remember tackling Sunday chores with renewed vigour in the lead up to new EA Rugby release.

Between EA Rugby 04, 06 and 08, I grew up recreating great Test matches (sometimes favourably – looking at you 2003 RWC final), beating the All Blacks and Boks overseas with George Smith, George Gregan, Steven Larkham et al, and of course winning a few Super Rugby titles with my beloved Reds.

George Gregan in 1994

George Gregan of the Wallabies. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

You could also branch out playing licensed European competitions, take the B&I Lions on full tours, cobble together your ultimate team in the World League, and (after countless hours) even steer the mighty Welwitschias to a maiden RWC win on Elite difficulty.

Every new game would see updated squads, updated player stats, new jerseys, and renewed interest in the code.

Every multiplayer clash with a mate at home would see you trying to score with favoured players and, in later games, gloatingly replay the action.

And of course, choosing the style of your try putdown (classic, dive, or Matt Giteau) by holding down ‘x’ was one of the great joys – provided you didn’t accidentally boot the ball away 2m from the tryline.

Now we can debate which rugby game is best until the cows come home (for many, it’s still a two-horse race between Jonah Lomu Rugby and EA Rugby 06)

But having sampled the nine offerings since EA Rugby 08 such as the Rugby Challenge series, it’s safe to say they pale in comparison.

Graphics have barely improved, gameplay and realism has arguably gone backwards, the vast majority of teams/competitions are unlicensed, and costs are disproportionate to game quality.

For mine, that’s a serious problem. And it showcases an error by omission from World Rugby.

Because gaming isn’t just for spotty teens anymore.

It’s viral, endemic. It’s part of who we are and how we connect as a global community. And when it comes to sports, gaming offers a whole new market of fan and consumer.

See, the chances of me watching soccer (“football” for the purists) are next to none but I’ll sure as shit jump on FIFA with a few mates to hoot and holler while steering Mbappe and Kerr around for 14 minutes at a time.

It’s a similar story with basketball, ice hockey and American football – three sports in which I have little to no interest but have thoroughly enjoyed playing via controller.

They are fun, immersive, high quality, fully licensed, and generate interest in their code beyond players and fans.

More importantly, they make money. Big money.

The NBA 2K franchise for basketball has sold over 123 million units in its lifetime.

FIFA 2018 has sold 26.4 million units alone.

EA’s NHL, NFL & Golf franchises have also proven commercially viable, if somewhat stale in later offerings.

So why in the Matt Dunning’s drop goal hasn’t there been a serious push for World Rugby to re-enter the EA sports market?

Rugby nerds like me have been crying out for another fully licensed game and I know I’m not alone.

Pumas great Augustine Pichot voiced his desire for a world-class rugby video game during his failed bid for the World Rugby chairman’s role and past players such as Ugo Monye have used their platform to advocate for a fully licenced game.

The old adage “you have to see it to be it” is applied to sport all the time but in this case, I’d argue it doesn’t go far enough.

Because to compete in a global sporting market and draw new fans, it’s not enough to see it anymore.

You have to be it.

And it’s my strong view that for rugby to enhance its profile, average Joes and Josephines must be able to grab a console, pick a team and BE their rugby heroes from the comfort of their home.

Let me stress the importance of licensing.

A video game must include all players, jerseys, names, faces and sponsors.

No one’s going to buy a copy or jump online with their mates to play as a generic “New Zealand XV” with Barden Burrett or kick “South Africa XV” to victory with Andy Pollardde.

Beauden Barrett of the Blues in action during the round 14 Super Rugby Pacific match between the ACT Brumbies and the Blues at GIO Stadium on May 21, 2022 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Who doesn’t love rugby’s own Barden Burrett? (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Fans need to be their heroes. And a video game that allows them to do so in Australia will empower not just the next Wallabies, Wallaroos, 7s stars but also future coaches, refs, park players and superfans.

I’d also argue an updated EA game would separate union from the congested sporting landscape here in Oz and lend authority to the code, particularly for young athletes wanting to keep the good times rolling at home.

It’d be a stretch to say union retains more talent and attracts cross-code juniors if there’s a household EA video game backing XV-a-side rugby but it surely can’t hurt.

Imagine if young players could take Les Blues or the Black Ferns through their respective World Cups or win a Commonwealth/Olympic medal in 7s from their living room.

Imagine grinding your way up a multi-division World League with every top flight professional team in play – fully licenced – and the choice of getting offered a new team (Crusaders) to manage or a star player (like Antoine Dupont) to sign.

Imagine a create-your-own player system with everything customisable from top speed and tackling to headgear and painted nails.

Imagine a “history” mode where players have to recreate famous World Cup moments under pressure: drop goals with Stransky and Wilkinson, or legendary tries with Finegan, Nonu and Kolbe.

It’s all possible. And it builds a legacy for new rugby fans.

At the end of the day, I’ll still blindly love the game of rugby, the Reds, and the Wallabies (warts and all), regardless of whether a new high-quality video game is developed.

I’ll still wake up at sparrow’s for Spring Tour tests, scrounge around for pre-season Super Rugby trial livestreams, and get my fix watching Currie Cup and NPC fixtures in between Prem Grade and Shute Shield.

But it’s been 14 years since the last fully licensed rugby game was dropped and RWC France is right around the corner.

So I don’t know who needs to see this or how it happens, but for the sake of our next gen rugby fans and players particularly in Australia, I’d love for rugby bodies across the world to come together and push EA for a new game.

Whether it’s commercial, cultural, to improve pathways and participation, or just so punters like me can win another World Cup with the Welwitschias – there’s something in this.

Thanks for sticking around this long.

Namibian upsets soon.

Rugby 08 forever.

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