Evolution of the RWC match ball

(ER 2015) Friday 6 September 2013
Evolution of the RWC match ball
Replicas of the official RWC 2015 match ball will go on sale from 23 September at www.rwcshop.com

With just over two years to go until Rugby World Cup 2015, Gilbert earlier this week unveiled the official ball design for the tournament. The proud supplier of match balls for every Rugby World Cup since 1995, Gilbert has once again delivered a highly innovative concept for the Rugby World Cup ball.

We take a look at the remarkable journey of the rugby ball from its origins on the playing fields of Rugby School, to its evolution into the highly sophisticated piece of sports engineering we will see on display at RWC 2015.

The beginnings

In 1823 when, according to popular legend, William Webb Ellis created the game of rugby, the balls used would have looked very different to the rugby balls that we see today. Back then, the balls would have been much larger and heavier, leather-clad with a pig’s bladder interior, hand-stitched and laced.   
As the sport grew in popularity at Rugby School, it was William Gilbert (1799-1877), the owner of a local shoe making business, who started making rugby balls for the school. Gilbert could scarcely have imagined where his business and the game of rugby would be nearly two centuries later, and that the company he founded would one day be supplying the official match balls for the showpiece tournament.

Rugby World Cup match balls

Mitre and adidas supplied the match balls for the first two Rugby World Cups, in 1987 and 1991 respectively. Gilbert then became the official supplier of match balls for RWC 1995 in South Africa, and the trademark green and blue Gilbert ellipses went on to become a regular feature at the next three tournaments.

At RWC 1999, Gilbert introduced a newly developed rubber compound and used bonded coloured rubber to create the trademark ellipses, reducing the amount of ink on the ball to improve grip.

Then at RWC 2003, Gilbert  developed a new pimple pattern with increased height and greater dispersion to further improve grip.

RWC 2007 was the first time that Gilbert did not use ellipses on a Rugby World Cup ball. The grip was further developed to use star shaped, multi height pimples to give improved grip without affecting the aerodynamics of the ball.

The RWC 2011 ball design took inspiration from the tournament look and feel with Maori insignia on the edges of the ball. Internally, the bladder and valve were improved, creating a ball with better rotational stability to improve passing accuracy and reduce air loss during the match.

A unique ball design

The new design is the first Rugby World Cup ball made by Gilbert to move away from the traditional RWC logo colours of green and blue. The design uses vibrant and contrasting colours such as pink and lime across the edge of the ball, creating a striking visual impact.

These colours feature heavily in the tournament look and feel and the patterns take inspiration from the Game’s origins. Gilbert Rugby Ball Engineer Ian Savage said: “The tournament’s Modern Classic look takes inspiration from the modern styling of English design and also the heritage of the Game of rugby. This can be seen on the end of the ball. The hoop design takes inspiration from the fact that, unofficially, hoops were used to define a rugby player’s jersey, and stripes were used to define a football shirt … and it’s great to see that level of heritage making it to 2015.”

The design will also feature the official tournament social media hashtag, #RWC2015, for the first time  at a Rugby World Cup. Each set of match balls will also be unique as they will illustrate the fixture, date and stadium name.

The next steps

With the design finalised, Gilbert will now be turning their attention to the technical side of ball development. This means that Gilbert will put the actual match ball into use one year before RWC 2015. The new ball will be piloted during the November internationals of 2014, so that virtually every player at the tournament will have had one year to get used to the new ball.

While it remains to be seen how the final specifications of the match ball will develop, we can be sure that the eye-catching design of the ball will become one of the iconic symbols of RWC 2015.

Replicas of the official match ball go on sale from 23 September on www.rwcshop.com. In the meantime you can already get your hands on some great RWC 2015 merchandise in the online store.