In these modern times of fast cars and funeral insurance, we expect one button to do a lot. We expect it to help us stick to cover, roll away from it, duck and run faster. Things work as expected most of the time, but that unintentional forward roll can sometimes end in bloody, frustrating death. The stakes aren't as high in Rugby Challenge (deceivingly packaged in Wallabies and Jonah Lomu varieties), but those unintended consequences crop up more often than the average because of a control scheme that tries to do too much with a few buttons.
It doesn't try to do too much with every button, but some work across purposes. The most eggregious example being the humble square button. You use it to shrug off defenders, drive through tackles and... drop kick. So many times I found myself breaking away from what could've been a try-saving tackle, only to bomb the ball dead; on the full no less. To make things even worse, every face button can be used to kick the ball. Useful commands are either relegated to the unresponsive back touch pad (sprint), or simply don't function under the pressure of competition.
I should clarify, the controls don't function under the pressure of competition and the artificial difficulty. Play even the most meagre of opposition with the greatest of teams, and you will be beaten each time at the breakdown if you beef up the difficulty. Break the line on any difficulty level higher than Easy, and your opposing number will move at the speed of a sports car to end your rush for glory. They'll also promote the ball with reckless abandon. Normal difficulty or higher will have the AI playing hot potato with reasonable odds of breaking your line. The unresponsive player-controlled tackling doesn't help things either; more often than not, I would switch to a player and run back to act as a safety net for my defence and hope that my computer-controlled allies wouldn't need me to intervene. Don't get me wrong: victory is possible on even the highest setting, but your enemy will use dirty tactics to keep you on your toes.
The training suite is reasonably thorough, save for the fact that I still have no idea how the line out works in this game; I won these set pieces often, but I'd be buggered to tell you how -- or more importantly -- why. The training mode tasks you with watching instructional videos complete with button prompts, and then performing the actions yourself. It's surprisingly effective, and the ability to play with a group of four players during the extensive loading sequences had me well versed in how Rugby Challenge was supposed to work. It leaves a solid first impression, but as per the observations above, it's quite misleading.
The best thing about Rugby Challenge is that the fundamentals work well: the passing, running and kicking of the ball (when intentional). Played on Normal difficulty or lower, you can set up scoring plays by running straight, absorbing defenders, and offloading with precise timing; it's undeniably satisfying. Twin stick controls for scrums and touch-controlled goal kicking also work surprisingly well, and if you're not too picky about what happens when a phase ends, you'll probably find a lot to like here.
In terms of presentation, Rugby Challenge again gets the fundamentals right for Australian and New Zealand fans. The Trans-Tasman rivals get licensed national and Super 15 squads, but our European and African friends aren't so lucky. There are quite a few genuine European club teams and kits on offer, but none that I'm really familiar with. No such luck with international teams, however. Player and location likenesses are surprising in some cases, but more often than not, you'll find a clusterfuck of unimpressive textures on display. There's some competent commentary and a repetitive score that occasionally plays over the menus: otherwise your ears will have to be satisfied with the roar of many a different crowd.
I couldn't find a single multiplayer match, which is more than understandable given the system's relatively small install base and the limited appeal of the sport. That being said, however, Rugby Challenge offers a respectable amount of options and competitions for solo Rugby enthusiasts. That being said, unless you have a great love of the sport, I'd probably recommend an EB rental (EBGames in Australia has a seven day return policy which I used to exploit on a regular basis) before committing.
Despite the inconsistent controls and artificial difficulty, Rugby Challenge wasn't a total loss. The game faltered at the breakdown, but the solid fundamentals made for a reasonably enjoyable experience. I wouldn't recommend this game to any but the most ardent Rugby Union enthusiasts, and even then, you need to spend some time messing with the camera options to get the most out of it. A pleasant surprise with some expected technical and mechanical hiccups.