Rugby Equipment – Balls through the Ages

Published: 10th March 2009
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The game of rugby has been played for many years. Initially the rugby equipment and rules were not set, and tended to differ between one game and the next. It wasn't until 1845 until the first set of written rules are said to have been published, by three students from the Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. The game of rugby owes its name to this historical school, which is one of the oldest public schools in the country.

Modern rugby balls are very distinctive. They are easily recognisable due to their prolate spheroid shape with rounded ends and specific dimensions. As with other rugby equipment, this has not always been the case. Until the 1860s the ball was made from an inflated pig's bladder inner tube encased in leather. The size and shape of these balls may well have varied according to the pigs bladder used; players from individual areas may also have requested differing proportions. The job of inflating a pig's bladders was not one that many people wished to undertake. When the bladder was still damp and pliable a clay pipe would be inserted in order to allow a person to blow it up using lung power alone. The end of the bladder would then be tied and the whole thing cased in leather to help prevent the ball popping. These balls were often described as 'plum' shaped, rounder than those used today, but certainly not spherical.

Maybe it is not surprising that when an alternative to this method became available, it was welcomed enthusiastically. In the 1860s rubber inner tubes became available, as did brass hand pumps. This allowed for balls to be made into exact shapes easily, some were designed to be spherical, but the boys from Rugby School requested something very different. Due to the uniform size and shape of these rubber 'bladders', the leather pieces used to cover them could be made to specific designs too - the production of rugby balls was able to speed up.

Although rugby equipment had evolved a great deal, the initial rules surrounding balls were not introduced until around 1892. It was necessary for the ball to be hand stitched with no less than eight stitches per inch. The weight of the ball should have been from twelve - thirteen ounces, with a length of 11 - 11¼ inches. The circumference (width) was 25½ - 26 inches, and the end on circumference 30 - 31 inches. In 1931 the ball width was reduced to 24 - 25½ inches and the weight increased to 13½ to 15 ounces. It is interesting to note how these differ to modern standards.

Today, ball standards and specifications vary between Rugby League and Rugby Union games. In the 1980s, the leather casing traditionally used has been replaced on the most part by synthetic materials. These are water proof and often have surfaces that aid grip. As a player of rugby, or as a fan, it is fascinating to see how the game has evolved over the years. Alongside the game, rugby equipment has also changed through time.

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