In 1997, Lee Mather, a 19-year-old from Staffordshire, became the greatest player in world rugby.
An overnight sensation who was quicker than Rory Underwood and more elusive than David Campese. Mather was so good that even a team of 15 Lomu’s would have dropped a Jonah to make space for him.
The speed with which he played the game came from another rugby galaxy. Mather could hit supersonic and then shift seamlessly into hypersonic. With maximum velocity reached, he would acquire inertia and glide round opponents, kicking up victory dust as he went. He turned the team he played for, Rage All Stars, from a handy outfit into a side capable of beating the All Blacks.
But if you’ve never heard of Lee Mather, don’t worry, the history books haven’t either.
His exploits never graced a real rugby field. Lee Mather, the rugby superstar, exists only in the world of Jonah Lomu Rugby – a computer game which rugby fans from Kent to Kentucky will universally agree is the most iconic the sport has known.
The real-life Lee Mather was a studio dogsbody working on the game for the developers, Rage.
The real-life Lee Mather was a studio dogsbody working on the game for the developers, Rage. Responsible for everything administrative, from the compilation of player statistics, testing the game, burning discs, sorting the office IT. That was Mather’s real role. The game’s lead programmer, Tony McCabe, took a shine to him and without Mather knowing it, McCabe boosted Mather’s statistics to a level that made him the best player in the game.
For fans of ‘JLR’ – and there were hell of a lot of us – Mather became a legend. A player you could only access if you were capable of winning a gruelling series of cups to unlock the ‘Extra Cup’, he was a player to toast your gaming prowess with, and flaunt over other players.
A simple ‘do you know about Mather?’ would often suffice. If you knew, you knew.
As the real Lee Mather told TheXV for this article, the notoriety his avatar has gained took him by surprise.
“When the game came out in 1997, the internet was still relatively new so there wasn’t many ways to discuss computer games with other fans.
“But it’s had a resurgence in recent years with people looking at PlayStation One games as retro gaming and Jonah Lomu Rugby would get chucked in there as a great sports game. And quite often that developed into people talking about the quickest player in the game being Mather.
“I remember reading a comment where someone had written ‘Jonah Lomu Rugby is all about Mather.’ I thought, this is getting ridiculous!”
High-profile mentions of the game have added to JLR’s kudos with Australian winger Drew Mitchell taking to Twitter during the 2015 World Cup to acquire JLR and a PlayStation One. Twitter delivered, but by Mitchell’s own admission, he struggled playing against his room-mate Matt Giteau, who even beat him with Ivory Coast when Mitchell played as New Zealand. And that takes some doing.
More recently – in April this year – Agustin Pichot brought the game into focus during his election campaign for the World Rugby presidency by saying “rugby hasn’t had a decent game since Jonah Lomu Rugby”.
Whilst many rugby fans would put forward a strong case for Rugby ’08 being a ‘decent game’, Pichot’s point is still a valid one.
How is it that a sport watched by over 857 million people during the 2019 World Cup, is best represented electronically by a computer game developed in a previous century, or even in a previous decade in the case of Rugby ‘08?
One theory is investment – or the lack of it – from the gaming industry. With the major publishers having their heads turned by sports with a tried-and-tested record of making a profit; football, American football, basketball, and almost any racing genre.
Yet attributing rugby’s lack of quality games in recent years to a straightforward absence of financial investment over-simplifies the challenge.
The greater reason is that rugby is extremely hard to simulate in a fun way. So simply throwing money at a rugby game won’t work. It needs rugby passion, persistence, and a deep knowledge of the sport.
What the publishers of JLR, Codemasters, did so well was choosing Rage to develop their game. Rage’s Birmingham studio – one of three Rage branches at the time – had exactly the right group of people. A mix of rugby nauses and novices who condensed a complicated, frenetic, exhilarating sport, into a simple-to-play, frenetic, exhilarating computer game. A recipe that has too often been forgotten, or ignored, by developers who came afterwards.
“I was not a massive rugby fan,” Mather admits. “I had very little knowledge of the sport but there were guys in the studio who had a real love for the game whilst understanding that it was quite complicated and that the pacing of the game was not necessarily conducive to a fun experience, if presented in certain ways.
“We were a tiny team, just 10-15 people, all within throwing distance of each other in the office. It meant people were working closely always playing the game, always sitting at someone’s desk. I always think the sign of a really good game is when people are sat there playing it in their lunch hours or staying later to play it after work. That’s quite insane to spend your days working on a title and then continuing to play it into your personal time.
“But we had this very early feeling that it was something fun and exciting to play but still had enough in it for rugby obsessives to not feel it had been dumbed down.”
As publishers of the game, Codemasters also needed someone in the room who knew their rugby. So Stewart Regan was sent to project manage the game’s development.
“Rugby wasn’t one of the mainstream sports so we knew we couldn’t just target a rugby audience,” Regan tells us. “One of our aims was for people who didn’t know anything about rugby to be able to pick up a controller and within an hour be playing and really enjoying the game. The developers spent a lot of time tweaking the UI (user interface) to make sure it was playable to a wider audience.”
It is the playability of JLR that stands out above everything else – a fact recognised by gaming reviewers at the time.
French gaming website Jeuxvideo put it best: “After a few encounters, we begin to realise the richness and flexibility of the gameplay. The pleasure of varying your actions takes place and the many subtleties of rugby appear; passes, mauls, kicks, tackles follow one another, all accompanied by little fuss and no sideways running to score tries. Each sequence becomes natural over time, we have the impression of being there, so the game is rugby realistic.”
Perfectly capturing the quality of ‘little fuss’ was one of the game’s most radical – and genius – features: the absence of knock-ons.
Mather again: “I think what drove that decision is Tony, Trevor Williams (Head of Rage Birmingham) and Andy Williams (the co-lead on programming) playing the game to death all huddled round Tony’s desk, and realising that not having knock-on’s didn’t harm the integrity of the game, and made it more entertaining, so they left it out.”
The developers also made brilliant use of the PlayStation’s shoulder buttons, allocating the passing mechanism to it as well as the hand-off and side-step controls.
If the game’s playability got us coming back time after time, what got tongues wagging was the commentary, with legendary Scottish commentator Bill McLaren alongside the deep Lancastrian bass of Bill Beaumont
It made passing the ball slick and simple – L buttons to pass left, R buttons to pass right – it seems so obvious now but in 1997 it was innovative and fresh. Rage also dispensed with realism in the quality of the passing. In JLR, everyone is an Aaron Smith, capable of whipping bullet passes to team mates, making the game so much quicker.
If the game’s playability got us coming back time after time, what got tongues wagging was the commentary, with legendary Scottish commentator Bill McLaren alongside the deep Lancastrian bass of Bill Beaumont. Every discussion of JLR will, without fail, include a session quoting the game’s best commentary moments. For sheer silliness and delivery, my nomination is:
“That tackle will put him in ward 4.”
“I hope not Bill, that’s the maternity ward.”
With a close second being “He’s digging like a demented mole there!”, a line which was similarly popular in the French version of the game, commentated on by Jean-Louis Calmejane and Denis Charvet. Whilst in third place: “It’s hot, it’s humid….and it’s sticky”.
But every fan will have their own top three.
“The commentary by Bill McLaren and Bill Beaumont worked better than we ever thought it would, they played off each other so well,” recalls Regan.
“The humour made the game accessible. It made it into a sociable game. The lines were mainly written by Trevor, Tony, Steve [Williams] and Andy with an extensive amount of ad-libbing from Bill and Bill.”
Another key component was, of course, Jonah Lomu. Rugby’s first global superstar was the ideal man to front the game’s first proper computer game. But – crazy though may it seem – big Jonah wasn’t the only candidate in the running.
“The shortlist consisted of three or four names,” says Regan, “Jonah was accessible for the game’s budget. Let’s remember that in 1996 we didn’t know how many copies of the game we would sell so it came down to a cost decision too. Jonah was a star of the game who had a presence, an enormous presence. I remember meeting him at a charity rugby match in December 1996 [in Ebbw Vale]. He was a very unassuming guy, a very nice guy and absolutely huge. It must have been so intimidating meeting him on the pitch.”
The developers certainly captured Lomu’s intimidating side in the game. His hand-off ability made him unstoppable, opponents ricocheting off him as if they’d been electrocuted upon contact.
But in retrospect, it was perhaps a glitch in the game as it turned Lomu’s hand-off into an effective try button, forcing many groups of friends to establish a ‘no New Zealand policy’ when playing each other.
But this hardly detracts from the game’s appeal, and besides Lomu had already proven to be as destructive in real life as his computer game self, despite being just 20-years-old when he burst onto the scene at the 1995 World Cup.
As Codemasters and Rage approached the release date for the game in 1997, there was a growing feeling of excitement and pride that they had done the sport proud whilst creating a really entertaining game which anyone could play.
But how would it do commercially?
“The shelf life of Jonah Lomu Rugby was incredible,” Regan reveals. “It wasn’t expected to do that well but it just kept selling. The company was very, very pleased.”
So much so that the production run of the game lasted for eight years, winding down eventually in July 2005.
The game out-sold other Codemasters sports titles of that era, such as Pete Sampras Tennis and Brian Lara Cricket.
“The shelf life of Jonah Lomu Rugby was incredible. It wasn’t expected to do that well but it just kept selling.
Stewart Regan, project manager, Jonah Lomu Rugby
Yet it was Brian Lara Cricket which received the franchise treatment from Codemasters, with new versions released in 1999, 2005 and 2007.
Why JLR didn’t develop into its own franchise is not entirely clear, although the game may have been a victim of its own success, selling well enough between 1997 and 2005 for Codemasters to live and let live, rather than iterate on a much-loved original.
By the mid-noughties, when Codemasters might have considered diving back into rugby, the aristocrats of sports gaming development, EA Sports, had joined the fray, producing a series of games which culminated in the highly regarded Rugby ’08. But then they too shut down their rugby division, leaving rugby gamers waiting for a new flagbearer to carry the genre forward.
And we’re still waiting 12 years later.
Although there has been plenty of attempts, and some commendable efforts – such as Rugby World Cup 2011 and the Rugby Challenge franchise – none of them have done enough to inherit the throne from JLR, or even draw level with Rugby ‘08.
“I feel rugby fans have been sold short with rugby games in recent years,” says Craig Swayne, the co-founder of Youtube channel FAB Rugby.
“Games often feel half-arsed and when you are paying 50 quid for a game. It’s infuriating.
“What Agustin Pichot said is so important to attract the next generation of fans, and rugby games are a big element in that. Jonah Lomu Rugby was massive for me growing up and I really hope for the next generation they get that game soon which they get the same buzz from.”
Just a week ago, the 4th iteration in the Rugby Challenge franchise – published by Tru Blu Entertainment – was released but Craig’s initial assessment is lukewarm.
“Whilst it’s still early days, it’s not incredible and has a lot of lazy features. It is very much Rugby Challenge 3 boxed up in new packaging,” he said.
“Does this take the title of best rugby video game? No. That is still split between the two greats, Jonah Lomu Rugby and Rugby ’08.
“I’d love to see rugby re-think it’s computer game offering. There used to be a game called Destruction Derby, where you had a figure of eight with cars going round and round and they just crashed into each other. Why can’t rugby have a similar thing?
“Football had FIFA Street, which changed the way football was interpreted. You’ve got to think about new fans, creating a new environment that is chaotic, colourful. It would be amazing if they did something different like that in rugby.”
So would Codemasters consider re-entering the rugby genre? Sadly, that seems highly unlikely as the company now focuses exclusively on racing games – with a certain Lee Mather now the Franchise Director of their hugely popular F1 series.
Nonetheless the opportunity is there for a bold and imaginative games publisher somewhere to pick up the ball and run with it, just as Codemasters, Rage and Mather did almost a quarter of a century ago.
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