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The history of the rugby ball

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J P Myburgh

J P Myburgh

A rugby enthusiast, I bring you news and insights from the exciting world of rugby.

Historic rugby ball

If you have a good understanding of what rugby is then your next stop should be to find out how the rugby ball came about. The history of the rugby ball is a fascinating journey that mirrors the game’s development. Rugby originated from a version of football played at Rugby School in England. The legend goes that during a match in 1823, a young man named William Webb Ellis caught the ball and started running towards the opponent’s goal, creating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game.

In the early days, rugby balls were made out of pig’s bladders, which naturally assume a prolate spheroid shape when inflated, more similar to an American football than the rugby ball we know today. The pig’s bladder was placed inside a leather case for better grip and protection. The rugby balls themselves were inconsistent in shape due to the natural variations in pig bladders.

Pig bladder

In the mid-19th century, the rubber bladder was invented. This allowed the balls to become more consistent in shape and size, but they retained the traditional prolate spheroid shape.

As the rules of the game of rugby evolved, so too did the design and materials of the rugby ball itself. By the 20th century, a more elliptical shape had been adopted, marking a distinct departure from the original, rounder design. This change better fit the unique demands of rugby, facilitating the carrying, passing, and kicking integral to the sport.

The modern rugby ball also underwent significant changes in terms of construction, with the introduction of the four-panel design being a major milestone. The most commonly used ball is the Gilbert rugby ball. This design came to replace the earlier plum-shaped balls that were stitched together from multiple leather patches. The four-panel design, known as the ‘melon’ shape, was easier to manufacture consistently and provided a stronger structure. This improvement was crucial in a sport where the ball is subject to a high degree of wear and tear.

Today’s rugby balls are a testament to advancements in material science and manufacturing techniques. They are typically made from synthetic materials rather than the leather used in the balls of the past. The outer cover is often made from natural and synthetic rubbers, designed to offer excellent grip, weather resistance, and durability.


Underneath the outer layer are typically three to four layers of cotton and polyester, designed to provide structure and maintain the shape of the ball. They also add to the ball’s rebound characteristics, which are crucial for the varied and dynamic styles of kicking seen in rugby.

The bladder is usually made from latex or a synthetic material such as butyl at the core of the modern rugby ball. The bladder is inflated to give the rugby ball its bounce and shape, and it’s designed to retain air as long as possible.

It’s fascinating to think about how far the rugby ball has come, from pig’s bladders encased in leather to high-tech, synthetic materials that enhance performance. The rugby ball of today is a product of decades of evolution and refinement, perfectly suited to the exciting and demanding sport of rugby.

The shape of the rugby ball has several advantages for the game of rugby. Its elongated form is easier to catch, carry, and tuck under the arm than a spherical ball. The pointed ends also make the ball bounce unpredictably, adding to the challenge and excitement of the game.

Additionally, the rugby ball’s shape allows for better control when kicking. In rugby, a player can score points by drop-kicking the ball through the uprights, and the shape of the rugby ball aids in this.

Therefore, the history and evolution of the rugby ball have been closely tied to the game itself, with its unique shape being a product of both historical materials and the practical needs of the game.


What is the difference between a rugby ball and NFL ball?

Rugby and NFL (American Football) balls are prolate spheroids, meaning they are elongated and pointed at the ends. However, they have key differences:

  1. Shape: An NFL ball is more pointed and elongated than a rugby ball, which is larger and more rounded.
  2. Size: NFL balls are generally smaller. An official NFL ball is about 11 inches long and 22 inches in circumference at the center, while a full-size rugby ball is around 11.8 inches long and has a circumference of about 24 inches in the middle.
  3. Laces: An NFL ball has laces on the upper part, used for grip when throwing. A rugby ball does not have laces.
  4. Surface and Grip: Rugby balls generally have a more textured surface for better grip in the various weather conditions the game is played in. NFL balls have a smoother leather finish.
  5. Usage: The way the balls are used in the games is also quite different. In NFL, the ball is primarily thrown, while in rugby, the ball is mainly carried and kicked.
J P Myburgh

J P Myburgh

A rugby enthusiast, I bring you news and insights from the exciting world of rugby.

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