Rugby balls, which are elongated ellipsoidal shapes, have been utilised in the game of rugby since the 19th century. The initial balls were crafted by Richard Lindon and Bernardo Solano, fashioned from leather casings stitched by hand and pig bladders. In earlier times, rugby ball sizes varied because they depended on the size of the pig’s bladder, resulting in balls that resembled plums more than ovals. The transformation from 19th-century rugby balls to modern ones is quite striking.
Over time, rugby balls have undergone significant enhancements. Contemporary rugby balls are the culmination of years of testing, input, research, and refinement. Their distinctive shape serves the purpose of facilitating catching, running, and staying in play more effectively than other ball designs would.
During the early design phase, distinguishing rugby balls from footballs was a notable objective. In 1892, the RFU (Rugby Football Union) mandated that all rugby balls adopt an oval shape.
Richard Lindon and William Gilbert were the ones who made the first balls for Rugby School, which is famous for being where rugby originated and where the sport’s name was born. Lindon and Gilbert were proprietors of nearby shoemaking establishments, which connected them closely to the school.
Initially, Lindon resided at 20 High Street, while Gilbert lived at number 20. This street led directly to the school’s quad entrance, where both boys played a form of football prior to the establishment of dedicated playing fields at Rugby School. As time progressed, William Gilbert’s shop relocated to 5 St. Matthews Street in 1842, positioned directly opposite The Close, the school’s playing field. By the 1850s, both men had emerged as the primary suppliers of pig bladders and leather-covered balls for the schoolboys, with Lindon’s shop situated directly across from the Quad Entrance on 6 Lawrence Sheriff Street.
The start: Pig bladders and Leather
The method of blowing up pig bladders for rugby balls was far from pleasant. To inflate them, a clay pipe stem was inserted into the bladders. The bladders emitted a particularly unpleasant odor, and the process could even be fatal if a bladder turned out to be diseased. It’s believed that the frequent inflation of rugby balls might have contributed to Richard Lindon’s wife falling ill.
Due to his wife’s illness, Richard Lindon was determined to find an alternative to pig bladders. In 1862, he opted to use an India rubber bladder instead. However, blowing up the rubber material by mouth proved to be quite challenging. Consequently, he devised a brass version of an air syringe to inflate his rugby balls.
Around 1870, Richard Lindon shifted to using rubber inner tubes instead of pig bladders. This new material also brought about a change in shape from a spherical to an egg-like form. The transition to the now-familiar oval shape was mandated in 1892 by rules introduced by the RFU (Rugby Football Union).
At the start, the balls needed to have exact measurements: a distance around the ends of 30-31 inches, a distance around the width of 25.5-6 inches, and a length of 11-11.25 inches. The weight had to fall between 12-13 inches, and the ball required handsewn stitching with at least eight stitches per inch.
Lindon had asserted that he was the inventor of the rugby ball and its distinctive oval shape. However, he never patented the ball, pump, or bladder. By the 1880s, various manufacturers across England were using the same production process as him.
Modern-day rugby balls
As time passed, rugby balls gradually took on a flatter shape. Leather was eventually replaced by artificial materials. One of the key reasons for this change was to prevent weather conditions from affecting the gameplay. Synthetic materials gained favour because they didn’t absorb water like leather, which meant they wouldn’t become heavy when wet. This heaviness was a common issue with leather balls during rainy conditions. The transition from leather occurred in the early 1980s, and Charles Macintosh, the renowned raincoat manufacturer, was a pioneer in supplying synthetic rubber bladders for the game.
In today’s context, a typical rugby ball is composed of four panels that are stitched together to form an oval structure. The length of a rugby ball generally measures around 30 cm, and its weight must not exceed 460 grams. Additionally, at the beginning of a match, the ball should have an air pressure of approximately 0.70 kg/cm².
Differences between Rugby Union and Rugby League balls
Let’s start with Rugby Union. The ball used in this style of rugby has an elliptical profile and a prolate spheroid shape. The standard ball has the following measurements: 28 to 30 cm in length x 58 to 62 cm in circumference. To put it differently, it’s around 11 to 12 inches in length x 23 to 24 inches in circumference – this measurement is taken at the widest point. When it’s at its full size, it typically weighs between 410 g and 460 g. You can tell a Rugby Union ball apart from the other type because it has a slightly more pointed end.
In Rugby League, a prolate spheroid-shaped football is used. It’s usually crafted from brown leather. The size of the rugby ball employed in Rugby League is approximately as follows: 27 cm in length x 60 cm in circumference, which is about 11 inches in length x 24 inches in circumference. The measurement for circumference is taken at the widest part. A full-size rugby ball in Rugby League should weigh between 383 g and 440 g. If a ball doesn’t meet the established standards, the game will be promptly halted.
Rugby ball makers and types
Most professional rugby leagues use balls created by brands like Mitre, Webb Ellis, Gilbert, and Adidas. In rugby league, balls are filled with nitrogen. Rugby balls come in various patterns and colours, though major competitions usually choose light-coloured balls because they are easier for both spectators and TV viewers to spot. There are subtle distinctions between the balls used in rugby league and rugby union. Rugby league balls are slightly more tapered compared to their rugby union counterparts. While rugby league footballs might appear somewhat similar to American footballs, they are indeed larger.
Gilbert rugby balls
Gilbert is one of the most well-known makers of rugby balls worldwide. When James Gilbert’s father passed away in 1917, he wholeheartedly committed himself to the family business, firmly resolved to uphold the Gilbert brand’s reputation for top-notch quality. He even personally inspected and stamped each match ball. Gilbert has held the esteemed position of being the official manufacturer and supplier of Rugby World Cup balls since 1995, maintaining its status as the most esteemed name in the realm of rugby ball production and design.