Gilbert Rugby Balls: The Making of an Icon

by Bernard Frei on March 19, 2019

Beginnings: Gilbert

Football in the town of Rugby was always unique. Before it was referred to simply as “Rugby”, it was a brand of football unique to the area. Points were scored by kicking the ball over the crossbar instead of into the goal. The shape of the ball, unlike any other of its time, was essential to the development of the game, and Gilbert was where it all started.

How the Early Days Shaped the Game

Though you may be familiar with the rugby ball of today, the original form more closely resembled that of a soccer ball. In the early days, animal bladders were wrapped in leather to create the balls. This construction meant there was no uniformity between any ball, but the ones Gilbert made using pigs’ bladders came to have a consistent style. They were perfect for long-drop kicking and placing, two crucial facets of the early versions of the game. Earlier games were played to three with the first team to kick two goals being the winner. Place-kicking was the major weapon, in the earliest days but around the 1860s dropkicks became just as popular. For decades kicking was the most vital part of the game, and it is believed that the original Shape of Gilbert balls was a major factor. James Gilbert himself commented this on the shape of Gilbert balls influencing the game:

“Place-kicking and drop-kicking were therefore very important features of the game in the early days, and it is probably due to these two features that we get the oval ball -- the shape being suggested in the first instance by the shape of pig’s bladders.”


Pictured below are two variations of balls used around the 1960s. Their unique shape meant they could be kicked in some instances seventy yards or more, fueling that focus on scoring via place-kicks and drop-kicks. These examples are very different from the ball we know today, so how did they become the shape we know and love?


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The Ball Evolves

A variety of factors contributed to the evolution of the rugby ball shape, but one of the most notable had to do with health concerns for the ball’s creators like Gilbert. Pig bladders were blown up in their “green state” using the stem of a clay pipe. Since the pump had not yet been invented, lung power was the only option available. William Gilbert even became famous for his lung power. Blowing up pig bladders using your lungs, however, presented a real danger. As you can imagine, pig bladders were not the most sterile of inflatables and it was not unheard of to contract lung diseases from them. At the time, this could very well be a death sentence for anyone unlucky enough to fall ill. Evolution quickly made itself necessary for the future of the game. First came the rubber bladder to replace the pig bladder, but it was soon deemed too difficult to blow up. After seeing an ear syringe, Richard Lindon, the inventor of the rubber bladder, took the same basic design and created a hand air pump out of it which would be the standard for inflating balls for decades to come.


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Pictured above are balls from 1922 made for the houses of Rugby School. Rubber offered a much more pliable option to pig bladder, allowing the ball’s form to change with the game. It is difficult to pin down exactly when the ball shifted, although it certainly came after rubber bladders came into circulation. William Gilbert puts the date around 1875, but we know for sure it came before the first official regulations on rugby ball sizes came in 1892. As the game developed, it began to focus more on the elements of handling and passing, and so the ball adapted to that as well. Moving from its more spherical shape to the shape we recognize today strengthened the catching and passing elements of the game, making it also look more like the action we see on the pitch today.

From Rugby to Across the Globe

As the game changed, so did its ball and vice versa. They were integral to each other, constantly adapting to the ever-changing desires of the public, who loved this game so much. What started in a little town in England expanded around the world, each nation creating is own unique nuances to their brand of rugby. William Gilbert would marvel at the addresses of the different nations as he wrote them on boxes full of Gilbert rugby balls---A little shop in England shipping out leather balls to far away places like New Zealand and Samoa. It was a marvel. This is the beauty of sport seen through the lens of rugby. While differences of language and distance threaten to divide, a simple ball has been able to unify so many across the globe.

 

Possess the elegance and tradition of the game buy checking out the Vintage Sports Rugby Collection and capturing your own piece of rugby history. 

 

Knox Ashford, a content writer for Vintage Sports, is a regular contributor to the site including stories, product descriptions, and video scripts. You can follow him on twitter @KnoxVSports for regular updates.

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