With modern boots, the science that goes in to developing them is so cutting edge that you could shave a diamond with it. We’re talking TPU studs, powerbands across the upper foot, solyte midsoles to reduce weight, and of course picking swatches of the most outrageous neon colourways, in keeping with loud shirts that began all the way back with the Pink Stade Francais number all those years ago.
But it wasn’t always like this.
Nowadays we cling to the conceptions that forwards like boots with 21mm studs, that the front-rowers really would enjoy having those long metal sprigs configured so that there are six studs on the front portion of your foot and two at the back. We expect backs to wear lighter boots with four studs at the front (short, moulded or even…wow! Blades!) This couldn’t be any further removed from the eponymous ‘boot’ everyone wore.
Henry Ford never actually said: “you can have any colour of car as long as it’s black,” but the mythical principle was the same for boots. One style, one colour, one set of problems. It’s ubiquitous – everyone has the same kit and if you didn’t have the right leather set with white laces you were an odd sod. The studs are still to this day configured in rows of two, but the positioning isn’t the same as the old, crampon-style cleat that strongly resembled a desert boot that had sprouted fangs.
However, even by 1959 when the British and Irish Lions toured New Zealand, boots were getting a little lighter and a the stud positioning was fairly close to what we see now… of course there was still a need for copious amounts of tape to hold the footwear together by the time a Test series neared its end. And that high-cut boot style, with the back of your footwear coming up beyond ankle height was a style that took some time to die out. Even in the Naughties there were front rows cutting about in high-cut boots, safe in the knowledge that that’s just what forwards were meant to do.
Mind you, we tend to think that how we see boots now is as far removed from previous generations as is humanly possible – and in this era of marginal gains and lab techs it is assured that plenty of science is being brought in to tweak – but look back to the 60s. Yeah, that’s right – branding on the boots and the backs have low-cut slippers on. We haven’t reinvented the wheel. Logos were getting stitched on boots long before the turn of the millennium.
There have been big game-changers though. Have you heard of Craig Johnson? If you like your kit you will have, because this fella came up with the idea for the market-surviving Predator boot. The Aussie was the man who decided that attaching rubber strips to the front of a football boot could help control a soccer ball and add spin to your kicks. He worked bloody hard to get his idea recognised, but as soon as it kicked off in football, rugby union stars were cracking on to the product as well.
It was a watershed for the game – suddenly there was real, strangely-worded science to back up what your fly-half was saying for years: a little tweak to the slippers could make a kick out of hand slightly different. Now we see boots with special tongue construction to keep out debris – by which we mean dirt and grass. We see different fibres woven together in the upper section of the boot to offer greater ball control but also flexibility and durability, while laces are repositioned so a boot has a larger ‘kick zone’. Stud shapes have evolved and boots are now lighter than a fairy cake in ‘zero-G’.
Who knows, maybe we would never have seen Carlos Spencer swerving out banana kicks or Jonny Wilkinson dinking drop-goals over with quite as much accuracy if synthetic uppers hadn’t been introduced. You’d be speculating if you said that, but by the same token you can’t halt progress.
Here’s to the ever-changing boot. May it continue to morph and be provided in more shocking shades of neon for years to come. And RIP to the reliable high-cuts in varying degrees of brown. We wouldn’t have got here without you!