Rugby World Cup – the whole kit and caboodle

(Rugby News Service) Monday 15 August 2011
Rugby World Cup – the whole kit and caboodle
Matt Giteau is one of a growing number of backs opting to wear headgear

Continuing his series of Rugby World Cup gems to reel off and impress your mates, Ian Gilbert looks at equipment that reflects the Game's advances in brain as much as brawn.

Have they always worn those tight shirts? I can’t imagine that some of the props of yesteryear would have enjoyed squeezing into them.

The skin-tight rugby shirt, by happy coincidence, came along since rugby players discovered the gym. The All Blacks led the trend away from the traditional heavy quilted cotton, but it was England coach Sir Clive Woodward in 2003, tired of seeing his flying wing Jason Robinson grabbed by a flailing hem in a last-ditch tackle, who wanted REALLY tight tops for his eventual World Cup winners.

In that year’s Rugby World Cup the French and South Africans were also in the new shirts, while Australia’s kit still made the concession of a collar. At this World Cup in New Zealand, the tight tops will be de rigueur for pretty much everyone.

I’m showing my age here – but didn’t the ball used to be leather? Perhaps even lace-up?

Readers of a certain vintage will remember the black-tipped adidas brown leather ball used by the southern hemisphere sides and the French in the 1980s, while the northern hemisphere was more synonymous with Mitre and Gilbert.

Come the first Rugby World Cup, Mitre got the nod; adidas supplied the official ball in 1991; but by 1995 Gilbert was the preferred brand and has remained so, with the 2011 Virtuo ball following the Barbarian (1995), Revolution (1999), Xact (2003) and Synergie (2007). The company’s rugby heritage is impeccable: founder William Gilbert was the ball and boot maker for Rugby School in 1823, when William Webb Ellis was a pupil.

So what’s it made of these days?

IRB rules decree the ball must be “leather or suitable synthetic material”, oval, comprise four panels and weigh 410-460g. Gilbert’s balls are made from layers of cotton and polyester covered with rubber for grip, encasing a latex bladder. It’s a far cry from the days when a real pig’s bladder was inflated by blowing through a clay pipe – a danger to the worker’s health if the animal had been diseased.

Some of the players’ footwear looks  a bit fancy – whatever happened to ‘proper’ rugby boots?

Rewind to the first Rugby World Cup and you’ll see many of the forwards sporting high-cut adidas boots, with their distinctive yellow finish. The German brand had long been prominent in the boot market, though Nike emerged in the 1980s through their tie-up with the England team.

These days, not only are there more brands on show, with the likes of Mizuno now prominent, but most of the forwards wear low-cut, football-style boots – except with eight studs (six front, two heel) to gain purchase at the scrum.

The backs have generally followed their footballing counterparts, with England’s Jonny Wilkinson wearing adidas Predator – the preferred choice of David Beckham – when he kicked the 2003 World Cup-winning drop goal against Australia. By chance, the Predator was developed by former Australian footballer Craig Johnston. In a 2004 interview with UK newspaper The Times, he said of Wilkinson’s score: “I was absolutely spewing. I still am...”

Why do some of the forwards wear strapping on their thighs?

It’s all to do with the lineout, where lifting used to be forbidden – and what a mess it was too. Lifting is now allowed to help forwards win clean ball for their backs, and create a more flowing game. The strapping on the jumpers’ legs enable the lifters to get a good grip; the target man works in harmony with his two lifters, forward and back, to get airborne. Teams will try to fox the opposition, but the most successful lineout teams are often those that simply get their man up quickly. Watch out for South Africa, with Victor Matfield soaring high.

Those kickers have got their preparation down to a tee...

You’ll see the kickers take aim at goal for penalties and conversions using a special kicking tee. The rules state that “the kicker may place the ball directly on the ground or on sand, sawdust or approved kicking tee” but most opt for the plastic or rubber tee. It makes for greater accuracy and leaves ground staff far happier than in the days when kickers hacked up the turf to make a kicking mound.

Many players now wear shoulder pads – wasn’t that always a feature of rugby league?

When you’re a 90kg back trying to stop a 110kg forward, you’re glad of any help you can get. Protective shoulder pads have been introduced as players become fitter and tackling more incessant. The headgear which used to be the preserve of the tight forwards (to protect the ears and face against rubbing in the scrum) has found favour with backs such as Australia’s Matt Giteau. Any such clothing has to be approved by the IRB.

Coming next ... hakas and hwyl - rugby's pre-match traditions