Having written a book about ‘Balls’ some years ago only for the publisher to go bust immediately after its launch I thought I might as well use this space to post some of the chapters.

So if you have a passing interest in sport, read on. We’ll start with rugby for ’tis the season of the oval ball, more to follow.


“It is a strange sight to see a thousand or fifteen hundred naked men to concur together in a cluster in following the [ball] as the same is hurled backward and forward…” Historian George Owen (1552 -1613) describing cnapan, a Pembrokeshire forerunner of rugby.
“Rugby is a game for the mentally deficient… That is why it was invented by the British. Who else but an Englishman could invent an oval ball?” Peter Cook
“I couldn’t very well hit him could I? I had the ball in my hands.” Tommy Bishop, former Great Britain rugby league captain when questioned about kicking a fellow player.
“The Empire Strikes Back.” Nike advert in the Daily Telegraph after England beat Australia in the 2003 World Cup Final
“I don’t like the new laws…it takes some of that violence out of the game which I think is disappointing”. England forwards coach John Wells with a fine excuse for his team suffering a southern hemisphere whitewash in 2008.

Western Samoa’s first international was against Fiji in 1924 – there was a tree in the middle of the pitch and the game kicked off at 7am so the Samoans could go to work afterwards.
Morley RUFC remains a bastion of unionism in the heartland of league as a result of the club’s two representatives missing the 1895 meeting in Huddersfield which saw the split from union – they decided to stop off for ‘a drink or two’ en route to the meeting and consequently missed their train.
An Australian rugby player complained of headaches and lethargy for some weeks after a game, then suffered a head injury which required examination – upon which it was revealed he’d had another player’s tooth embedded in his skull for over two months…

As defined by the International Rugby Board a competition rugby union ball is known as a Size 5 and should have the following dimensions:
Shape – oval, four panels
Length in line – 280-300mm
Circumference (end-end) 740-770mm
Circumference (in width) 580-620mm
Materials – leather or suitable synthetic material. It may be treated for water resistance and to provide an easier grip.
Weight 410-460g
Pressure – 9.5-10lbs per sq. inch
Rugby League balls are essentially the same shape but slightly smaller and more ‘pointed’ although still known as Size 5. Dimensions are: 270mm length; 600mm width; weight 383-440g.

The ‘invention’ of rugby is famously credited to William Webb Ellis of Rugby School in Warwickshire who in 1823 picked up the ball at a school football match and ran with it between the goals. Although a form of football in which handling was allowed had been played at the school since 1750 this was regarded as taking things a bit far and Webb Ellis was accused of cheating and consequently “held in low regard” by many of his fellows; it was nevertheless possible for him to get away with it because the rules were regularly changing and there was no real ‘tradition’ in the sport of football/rugby.
Unfortunately, colourful as the story may be in all probability it’s a myth…
Either way, this wasn’t by any means the first time a ball had been both carried and kicked in a game. The Roman game of harpastum involved using both hands and feet, and closer to home games such as ‘cnapan’ in West Wales, ‘campball’ (oo, get him…) in Eastern England, ‘hurling to goales’ in Cornwall and the Atherstone Ball Game, also in Warwickshire and still played today, all date from medieval times and had aspects about them which were similar to rugby i.e. a rabble of individuals careening around after a ball in a loosely organised riot.
Webb Ellis’ probably fictional move may have essentially been ‘illegal’ but by 1845 Rugby School had produced its first set of rules for the handling game. Prior to this, 300 or more players would take part in a ‘match’ – in effect the entire school – but as rugby developed and spread to both university and town clubs elsewhere in England it was clear that more organisation was required.
The first balls made specifically for the sport were constructed in 1832 by William Gilbert (1799-1877), shoemaker to Rugby School, who in 1842 moved to premises located next to the school.
Ironically, these days one of Gilbert’s major competitors, Webb-Ellis, is based opposite Rugby School and also houses the small and rather homely Webb-Ellis Rugby Football Museum – if you’re in the area it’s well worth visit. You may even catch ball maker John Batchelor in action producing hand made leather balls. Engage him in conversation to enjoy some splendid rugby tales.
There were no hard and fast regulations for rugby ball construction in the early days, and the reason behind the ball’s ‘prolate sphere’ shape is that the pig’s bladder from which they were made took on this shape when pressurised, although it has to be said that the shape does allow for far easier handling and passing than a true sphere would.
According to Mr. E.F.T. Bennett, who played for the Rucby School in the mid 1800s, “The shape of our ball came from the bladder and was a perfect ball for long drop kicking or placing and for dribbling too…” although it’s difficult to imagine how dribbling with a roughly shaped prolate sphere could be easy.
Early games used a bladder filled with paper or straw and no two balls were ever the shame shape, size or weight. Later developments saw balls being made from four pieces of cowhide stitched together and inflated by a pig’s bladder on the inside. The bladder would still be green and smelly and was inflated by human lung power, through the stem of a clay pipe inserted into the bladder.
In 1870, Richard Lindop, a former pupil at Rugby School who also supplied his alma mater with balls, invented an inflatable rubber bladder which was both easier to blow up and helped prevent illnesses caused through inflating a ‘raw’ pig’s bladders by lung power. His own wife had become ill as a result of blowing up her husband’s balls…ahem. Around the same time an ‘inflator’ was also developed, based on an enlarged ear syringe.
In 1871 James Gilbert exhibited the Rugby School Football at the Great Exhibition in London under ‘Educational Appliances’ and consequently exported 20 dozen balls to Australia. It was largely due to Gilbert’s promotional work that the family business went on to export balls to the other colonies in the late 19th century, including New Zealand and South Africa.
The same year the Rugby Football Union (RFU) was founded and in 1892 it introduced standard dimensions for the ball and made four panels the ‘official’ construction technique – prior to this six and eight panel balls were also produced.
The dimensions were as follows:
• Length: 11 to 11 ¼ in
• Circumference (end to end): 30 to 31 in
• Circumference (in width): 25 ½ to 26 in
• Weight: 12 to 13 oz
• Hand-sewn with 8 or more stitches to the inch.
In 1893, the weight of the ball was increased from 13oz to 14 ½ oz.
Materials for the ball’s outer covering varied with Gilbert using both camel and pig skin as well as cowhide – the former two were found to be easier to work with but were not popular with players since they were slippery when wet – which in the UK is obviously most of the time.
Meanwhile one of their employees, Henry Timms, who made some 50,000 balls between 1890 and 1935, introduced the technique of dry leather stitching – prior to this balls had been made up ‘wet’ and had to be dried out before being despatched to market, but this meant they could now be shipped to the ever increasing domestic and overseas market immediately.
By this time rugby had split into two codes, union and league. This came about mainly as a result of the RFU enforcing amateurism on the game – all very well for well-heeled former public schoolboys from the (predominantly) south of England but a harsh imposition on the working class northern clubs whose players relied heavily on ‘broken time payments’ in order to take time off work to play the game.
Despite the fact that little love is lost between followers and exponents of the two codes, there is very little difference between the balls used by union and league. The latter balls are slightly smaller and have traditionally been six panels as this gives a more ‘pointy’ shape which is better for kicking, although today four panel balls are more common, but to quote Tony Collins, professor of the social history of sport at Leeds Metropolitan University “The only thing the two sports really have in common is the shape of the posts and the balls”.
The need to have a ball that was easier to handle saw the dimensions of the union ball reduced by an inch and the weight raised by 1.45 oz in 1932, although different nations had their own design preferences – the Kiwis and Aussies preferred more ‘torpedo’ shaped balls, South Africans went for eight panels which offered better grip and the Home Nations stayed with four panels.
Gilbert remained the main brand for both union and league right up to the 1970s, with the Gilbert Match, made from cowhide, becoming the standard issue for union internationals in 1960. Indeed Gilbert remained with natural leather as other companies moved on to various synthetics and laminates that reduced water retention and allowed better handling, which may be one reason their popularity declined.
Companies such as Webb-Ellis (who supply the Heineken League and Welsh Rugby Union) and in rugby league, Steeden from Australia, are the other major players in the market today (Steeden so much so that the company name is often used generically in Australia for a rugby league ball). Gilbert also saw a revival such that by the 90s they were supplying the official World Cup ball (and still are) in the form of the Gilbert Xact, a synthetic and laminate structure which uses a patented star-shaped grip pattern for better handling (round pimples had been used prior to this, again on synthetic rather than leather surfaces).
A modern rugby ball is a complex composite of modern materials technology. Gilbert’s Synergie, for example, was developed through research with some of the world’s top players along with computational fluid dynamics analysis (no, we don’t know what it means either) and high speed video analysis. Even the valve is a technical masterpiece these days – no clay pipe stems and slimy pig’s bladders here, thank you very much.
Webb-Ellis match balls combine nanotechnology and 3D modelling to determine the optimum shape and placement of the ‘pimples’ for minimum drag and maximum travel; they use an advanced rubber compound utilising Formula 1 tyre wet grip technology; and the bladder creates extra pressure at each end of the ball to give a better sweet spot and more accurate kicking over greater distances.
A Steeden rugby league ball, meanwhile, is made in a complex eleven-step process which involves the following:
The outer is a special chemical composition made up of ingredients from several different countries which are mixed and then cured in a process that can take up to three weeks.
After curing the material is then bonded with synthetic fibres to create the correct balance between tension and shape retention; next the grip is carefully thermo-moulded onto the material, then the ball is cut by both lasers and skilled artisans. Each panel is then inspected under strict guidelines to meet weight, shape, printing and balance specifications; batches of panels are then sent for in-house testing of strength, abrasion and printing prior to stitching by specialists who may only work on one particular model. The ball is then measured and inflated, and once again measured and tested for air leakage, before finally being cleaned in a chemically engineered wash, deflated and shrink wrapped ready for market.
Which is all a long way removed from pig’s bladders and straw and probably far more preparation than the average user of said ball gets before a game…


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