The Rugby Ball

(by Anthony Mann; from The Manchester Guardian, Nov 13, 1998)

Early Doors

In perhaps the first international fixtures of any of the football codes, in the Middle Ages the townsmen of Cheshire were known to play with the Danish. Unfortunately for the Danes concerned, they were dead at the time. Being competitive types, the Cheshiremen cut off their heads and kicked them about for sport.

Other Incarnations

By the time rugby was codified in the mid-19th century, the ball had shifted down a species or two. Bootmaker to Rugby school William Gilbert used his leather to encase freshly-harvested pigs' bladders - already for some time the choice of the discerning street player - inflated through the stem of a clay pipe and coming complete with handy carry strings. The porcine world let out a grunt of relief when rubber replaced hog in the 1860s. It was in fact thanks to the ease of patterning rubber compared to the inflexibly round bladders of pigs that the shape changed from a sphere to an egg, although oddly the rugby football never came to be known as the footegg. The RFU enforced compulsory ovalness in 1892, and the gradual flattening of the ball continued over the years. Prone to water-logging despite preservative cod oil and tallow rubs, the end of leather as a casing was perhaps too long in coming. It wasn't until the 1980s that the weather-proof synthetics of today began to appear.

The Rebels

William Webb Ellis might have picked up the ball and run with it back in 1823, but not everybody went along with the strategy. In 1893, at Raeburn Place, Scottish international forwards RG MacMillan and HTO Leggatt sorely tested the Welsh defence with a superb display of shoulder-to-shoulder dribbling, keeping the ball close to their feet as they continually pressed at the Welsh line. It didn't help, though. The Scots still lost 9-0.

The Dynasty

Rugby balls ran in the Gilbert family. William himself died in 1877, but was succeeded by nephew James, who was noted for his lung power. After James came James John, and lastly, James again, who after the first world war exported balls to the southern hemisphere. Even today the name Gilbert lives on, stamped on the side of the ball of the 1995 and 1999 World Cups - and embodied in the James Gilbert Museum, opposite the Rugby school itself.

Technically speaking

Forget leather. The modern ball is a concoction of polyurethane, synthetic leather, laminated polyester, latex and glue - designed to keep its shape and withstand the elements.

Retail prices:

Gilbert Barbarian pounds 39.95
Mitre Test pounds 29.99
Puma Union Pro pounds 29.95
Gilbert Training Ball pounds 9.95 . . .
and Gilbert rugby ball-shaped drinks decanter pounds 19.99
Gilbert rugby ball earrings (9ct gold) pounds 79.50