The rugby ball you see zipping through the hands and soaring through the air is a marvel of specialist technology. Pick up a match-day ball and in your hands you’ll likely have a synthetic egg put together with hand-stitched polyester laminate, coated in dimpled rubber and encasing an inflatable bladder that gives the thing beautiful weight distribution and aerodynamic flight. Fancy stuff, huh?
In the very humble beginnings, though, as wee Willie Webb Ellis was churning about in the mud in 1923 and making up the game of rugby as he went along, a proper ball was needed. So it fell to local leather-worker James Gilbert to make the first ball. You’ll know the name – if you see a Test match on the telly, they’ll be using the latest Gilbert ball – but back then it was stitched leather panels and inflated pig bladders. Blowing up a pig bladder may not sound great to the squeamish, but because of its shape we had the egg-shaped ball.
By 1870, though, another local had developed a new technology to move the rugby ball on. Richard Lindon presented the rubber bladder, no doubt saving the bacon of a few nearby swine, and pushed out a hand-pump to help inflate the thing. Lindon had claimed he was the original inventor of the rugby ball – but nothing was ever patented and in the end several companies tried to make their own balls readily available.
Heading into the turn of the century, the ball was factored into the rules of the game. It had to be between 11 and 11 1/4 inches and weigh between 12 and 13 ounces. The width and weight of the official ball fluctuated between then and the 1930s, much like the aristocrats of the time.
In this time the ball went with the game to the other corners of the globe, landing Down Under, winning over the Antipodeans and wowing the South Africans. It’s almost unbelievable that the same company is still synonymous with the game and the ball, but it is? We now assume that the manufacturing techniques used before are outdated and laughable – I mean, people were putting pig bladders to their lips and blowing hard – but scan back to the second sentence, at the top. Yeah. ‘Hand-stitched’ is the terminology there. Because each ball is still lovingly hand-crafted. Yes, balls are covered in the most up-to-date moisture proof skins and they are pre-kicked with mechanical legs in a lab somewhere. But there’s a whiff of antiquity about it all, still. The modern ball is a loving marriage between the old-school and the new age. Robots booting artisan, stitched balls is all kinds of lovely madness.
Now we have the regulations for balls. They must be: between 280 - 300 millimetres long, between 580 - 620 millimetres in circumference, and weigh between 410 - 460 grams. But it’s so much more than these numbers. It’s still the valuable pill, the key to victory. It goes up jumpers and over crossbars, under the tunnel of the scrum and over the try line.
We’ve blown up a lot of balls to get hear, but it’s the same old wonderful egg. Lovingly put together and gloriously important. Now if we could just influence enough players to pass it, rather than kick it, it should be a star on the big occasions.