With Shaun Johnson in recovery from a severe leg injury, Don Rowe thought he might be able to take him down – on PlayStation, at least. Wrong.
Seated in a bright yellow bucket-seat, wearing one shoe and a moon boot, Shaun Johnson was still the best league player in the room. Hayley Holt from The Crowd Goes Wild, some guy from Flava FM and a couple other media figures had all fallen one by one, crushed under the unrelenting attack of the pride of the Hibiscus Coast. 30 to nil, 50 to 6 – grim stuff, and reminiscent of recent Warriors scorelines.
This was no time to reflect upon the latest season of discontent. Like all good video games, Rugby League Live 3 offers an alternative to cold reality. Under the lights of a virtual Eden Park, SJ is healthy and on form, the Warriors are up 30 points, and the club has taken home the Auckland Nines for the third or maybe fourth time in a single afternoon. I almost checked Tony Veitch’s Facebook page to see the last Warriors fan screaming “I TOLD YOU SO” in righteous capslock fury.
But it was too late for that. A beautifully bearded media handler ushered me from the room; I was to wait my turn outside with the other bloggers. They lazed on leather couches before a faux fireplace at the popular Cougar Den, the Ponsonby Longroom, discussing release dates and sales numbers, gameplay variations between Rugby League Live 1 and 2, and how both stack up to the classic Jonah Lomu Rugby for the Playstation 1.
They were all beards, tattoos and leather jackets, without a trilby or pimple in sight. Not bad for gaming bloggers. I felt like complimenting them, but I kept my mouth occupied with a flat white and surreptitiously warmed up my thumbs for optimal joystick control.
I haven’t played a team sport since I was 15, but working from home I’ve played plenty of video games. On balance, my form heading into the morning’s challenge could not have been better. If Kim Dot Com could be a world champion gamer, I sure as shit could.
Cheers came from the games room as Johnson crushed another journo, presumably feasting on his exp. points and swelling like Mario on Power-Up mushrooms. “I’ve always wanted to play the guy on the box,” said one of the bloggers. I had to think about what he meant for a moment.
The Beard suddenly returned, and it was game time. We milled in the hallway, each of us doing our best to run out last, but I was emboldened by the caffeine rush that comes exclusively from the first coffee of the day. I went first.
Ten Johnsons looked at me, one in the flesh and the remaining nine from a stand of PS4 games. “Hi Shaun,” I said to the real Johnson. “I’m Don Rowe from The Spinoff.”
“Oh, hey,” he said, not immediately impressed.
I looked at the screen. Warriors 32 Roosters 4. He needed a head start?
“You’re player two,” he said. “Roosters. We’re playing the Auckland Nines.”
I took the remaining leather bucket seat, and picked up a blue controller. It was damp and sticky with fear sweat. Johnson, playing as himself, slugged the ball into the waiting arms of my faithful digital Roosters.
“You hold R2 to sprint,” said Johnson as I took the ball forward, already at full sprint and cutting through his line. I came prepared, you see. 20 metres out from the posts, Johnson took control of his fullback and cut my player down. Mitchell Pearce (puppeted by myself) ran from dummy-half, spun it right to James Maloney who charged forward, broke a tackle, glided under the posts and did nothing.
“You press square to put it down,” said Johnson. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, and did what I was told. First blood to The Spinoff.
I asked if Johnson was happy with the way his face had been digitised, if he was glad he didn’t look like the victim of a bee massacre.
“Aww yea,” he said with a diplomatic air. “There are always a few things that could be improved, but it’s pretty good eh.”
I asked if they got his tattoos correct. He said they hadn’t, and that digital SJ had generic tribals. I didn’t ask if the Warriors had even the faintest hope of halting an eight game skid this season (they hadn’t) or if the team was cursed irreparably, but I thought about it.
On the restart I ran it straight, State of O style, and immediately lost possession. Johnson collected the pill, carved up my team with a nifty set piece, passed it to himself and scored with ease.
“Go SJ,” he murmured. Then he scored again, and again, converting each try like a 2003-era Jonny Wilkinson. Warriors 50 Roosters 10.
“Have you played much of this game?” I asked as the final whistle blew. “Just a little bit,” he said, leaning back in his bucket seat. “Actually, a guy from the Warehouse just beat me.”
Rugby League Live 3 is available now on PS4 and Xbox One, 17th September for the PS3 and Xbox 360
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