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Why are rugby balls egg-shaped?
Around the Academy:

Rugby balls being manufactured
Having a ball!

Ball games are played with - er - balls, right?

Footballs, tennis balls, snooker balls, basketballs, golf balls, cricket balls...

There's one thing they all have in common.

They're round! Most definitely circular! Positively spherical!

So, ever wondered why rugby balls are egg-shaped - unlike those used in other sports?

The Sport Academy decided to investigate.

When were oval balls first used?

Not long after the first game of rugby was played!

That was way back in 1823 when Rugby School pupil William Webb Ellis famously picked up the ball and ran with it.

A local cobbler called William Gilbert started supplying balls for the school soon after.

You can find all sorts of rugby memorabilia at the Rugby Museum
William Gilbert's old shop is now home to the Rugby Museum

Gilbert? Sounds familiar...

So it should! To this day the Gilbert name is at the forefront of the game.

Gilbert balls are exported to all the world's major rugby playing countries.

They were official ball suppliers to the Rugby World Cup in 2003.

But why the oval shape?

In the early days, balls were made using inflated pigs' bladders and so took on a similar shape.

Really, they were more of a plum shape to begin with. Much larger and rounder than they are today.

Some people believe the more elongated shape developed because it was more suited to a game like rugby that involved running with the ball as well as kicking it.

A pig's bladder - are you telling porkies?

No! The green, smelly bladders had to be inflated using the stem of a clay pipe before being encased in leather and hand-stitched.

A dirty job, but somebody had to do it!

And James Gilbert, William's nephew, was the best in the business.

Famed for his lung power, he blew up the biggest and tightest rugby balls.

I'm out of breath just listening!

Never fear! In 1870 Richard Lindon - another Rugby-based businessman - invented an inflatable rubber bladder.

He also created the brass hand pump used to inflate them.

Time for poor old James to catch his breath at last!

Gilbert rugby balls are still hand stitched
A stitch in time

So how else has rugby ball technology changed?

The basic stitching techniques involved in ball making are still much the same as in William Gilbert's days.

Waxed thread is used to hand-stitch the panels together.

The balls are stitched inside out to begin with. Five or six stitches are left loose to enable the ball to be turned the right way and finished with a new thread.

But what about the materials used to make the balls?

The leather casing used right up until the 1980s has now been replaced by hi-tech materials designed to help the balls keep their shape and withstand the weather - which can often change between kick-off and the final whistle!

Gilbert's Xact match ball, used during the Rugby World Cup 2003, was designed over an 18-month period with help from some of the world's top goalkickers.

Following a series of wind tunnel trials and laboratory tests the ball was developed to improve its accuracy and grip.

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Did you know
The size of a rugby ball was first standardised in 1892
It was reduced to the size it is today in 1931

IRB (International Rugby Board) Law states:
The ball must be oval and made of four panels
Length in line: 280-300mm
Circumference (end to end): 740-770mm
Circumference (in width): 580-620mm
Weight: 410-460 grams
Balls of different sizes may be used for matches between younger players

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