From The Vaults

20 May 2024
The Evolution of the Rugby Ball

It is over two hundred years since William Webb Ellis is said to have run with a football on the playing field at Rugby School. Webb Ellis would have played with a ball like the one below. How did this evolve into the rugby ball we recognise today?

Richard Lindon (1816-1887), another bootmaker based in Rugby, would also play a part in the evolution of the rugby ball. Lindon's workshop was initially located in the High Street and in the 1860s, he moved to premises on Lawrence Sheriff Street, across the road from the doors to the Rugby School quadrangle. Like William Gilbert, he was well placed to cater to the schoolboys' demand for footballs.

The lasting innovations he made to rugby ball design came in response to tragic circumstances. Pigs' bladders were inflated by lungpower while still in their green state, using the stem of a clay pipe inserted into the opening of the bladder. For the person inflating the bladders, there was risk of contracting an infection from a diseased pig. When Lindon's wife, Rebecca, died from lung disease in 1843 - possibly caused by years of exposure to this risk in his workshop - he sought a safer substitute for the pig's bladder.

Bladder development

Inspired by exhibits he had seen at the Great Exhibition of 1851, Lindon pioneered the India rubber bladder as an alternative. Too tough to inflate by mouth, he invented a brass hand pump to inflate it. Rubber bladders made it possible to regulate the size and shape of the ball for the first time, and Rugby footballs became more egg-shaped in response to the needs of the schoolboys, whose game involved more carrying and passing by this time. By 1862, Lindon was described as "Principal Foot-ball Maker to Rugby School, Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin Universities &c". He did not patent his ball, rubber bladder or pump, and soon several manufacturers were using these methods. It is Gilbert's name that is today more widely associated with the manufacture of rugby balls.

By the time William Gilbert died in 1877 and was succeeded by his nephew James, their workshop was producing 2,800 balls a year and the export market had grown:

"...goods of Mr. Gilbert's manufacture, especially footballs, are to be found all over the world. Indeed, it is hardly possible to go into a London shop where the footballs of different manufacturers are sold, without observing the superiority of the Rugby Ball." - Obituary in the Rugby Advertiser, 12/05/1877

The Rugby Football Union had been formed in 1871, but it was not until 1892 that they began to regulate the dimensions of the ball in the Laws of the Game:

The game shall be played with an oval ball of nearly as possible the following dimensions:

  • Length 11 to 11 ¼ in.
  • Length circumference 30 to 31 in.
  • Width circumference 25 ½ to 26 in.
  • Weight 12 to 13 ozs.
  • Handsewn and not less than 8 stitches to the inch.

(The following season, the weight of the ball was amended to 13 - 14½ ounces.)

Panel design

Over time, rugby balls became more streamlined to facilitate the handling and running elements of the game. In the laws of 1931/32, the circumference in width was reduced to 24-25 ½ inches, and the weight limit increased to 13 ½ - 15 ounces. There was some international variation in rugby ball design - a more pointed shape was favoured in Australia and New Zealand, whilst in South Africa, an eight-panel design (pictured) was preferred.

In the Laws of the Game issued by the IRB in the 1960-61 season, it was decreed that a four-panel ball was to be used for Rugby Union. In the 1969/70 season, a new line was added to the laws:

Balls may be specially treated to make them resistant to mud and easier to grip. The casings need not be of leather.

Synthetic Materials

Leather balls became very heavy when wet, and gradually the traditional leather casings were replaced with synthetic waterproof materials. In 1970, Mitre launched a synthetic ball and as its popularity grew during the 1980s, Gilbert produced its own version to meet demand. England played with Gilbert's synthetic 'Barbarian' ball for the first time in the 1981 Five Nations. Some teams continued to use leather balls - France and Wales used balls manufactured by Wallaby, for example. In 1986, a leather Gilbert ball was used in international rugby for the last time and by 1999, all the teams in the Five Nations were using their synthetic ball.

As synthetic balls became more widely used, makers experimented with materials and grip patterns to facilitate ball-handling in challenging weather conditions. For example, Gilbert's match balls are made with a higher concentration of natural rubber to enhance the grip, though this does reduce the longevity of the ball. The polyester thread is coated with wax to make it stronger and to reduce water ingress along the seams. Polyester backing material is used to help with shape retention and latex is now used to make the bladder.

The modern ball

The Gilbert family sold the business in 1978, and the brand was acquired by Grays International in 2002. As the official supplier to several rugby unions and ball-provider for the Rugby World Cup since 1995, the company continues to push the boundaries when it comes to technology and design. At the 2021 Women's Six Nations, a Gilbert smart ball was used in international rugby for first time. A data transmitting chip in the ball communicates with wireless beacons around the pitch, providing statistics such as kick distance and spin rate.

As of 2024, World Rugby guidelines stipulate that a regulation football must be 28-30 cm (11-12 in) long and 58-62 cm (23-24 in) in circumference at its widest point. It should weigh 410-460 g (14-16 oz).