RWC 15: A history of the World Cup match ball
A look at the balls used from the Mitre Multiplex through to Gilbert’s Match XV
Gilbert’s Match XV ball will be used at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Getty
Whether one believes or not in the legend of young William Webb Ellis, the oval shaped object at the heart of proceedings remains an instant identifier of rugby football.
The first Rugby World Cup in 1987 was played with a Mitre Multiplex. In 1991, an Adidas Webb Ellis. Gilbert got the contract in 1995 and it has held on to it since. But what makes a good rugby ball?
“To me, the purest ball flight was the Adidas Wallaby, the leather one with the two black dots. France used to play with it.” said Dave Alred, kicking coach to Jonny Wilkinson for many years, along with Jonathan Sexton and others. So the Wallaby, a ball older than most of the players at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, was the peak of rugby ball development? Not quite. “When it was wet it was all over the place,” Alred adds.
A rugby ball must be able to keep its shape and performance in all conditions, and the man in charge of that at Gilbert is ball engineer, Ian Savage.
The 2015 World Cup ball is called the Match XV (pronounced “ex vee”). “The surface is slightly softer in feel,” said Savage. “It also repels water better than its previous version. So the main improvement between this and the ball for the last world cup is a grip improvement.”
The ball is built upon previous developments. Gilbert’s Virtuo ball, developed for the 2011 tournament, was designed with a new bladder and valve, a significant internal change. The 2007 innovation was the introduction of thousands of extra, smaller, pimples; a delicate aerodynamic business.
The Match XV was launched in 2014 and was used in the Top 14, the Aviva Premiership and the Champions Cup this season, as well as by those international teams under contract to Gilbert. Savage was firm that, if there was to be a ball controversy at this year’s tournament, this is the same ball that has been used across major competitions for a season. It just looks different, said the engineer, carrying world cup branding instead of the usual ellipses that are synonymous with the brand.
Rugby is not like the NFL where every game features the same Wilson pigskin. A Pro 12 player will use a Rhino ball in the league and play and a Gilbert in the Champions Cup, for example. Tests played in New Zealand require an Adidas ball. “You go back a few years and they might have been using a Mitre ball playing against Italy and a Webb Ellis when they were supplying the ball for Wales,” said Savage.
“Whatever ball you’re playing with the following week you have to start with it on Monday,” explains Alred, who described subtle variations between manufacturers “in the balance of the ball, the size of the sweet spot within the ball and the elasticity in the casing. And sometimes how the valve sits in the seam or in the panel can also affect the balance of the flight.”
The valve is quite an important little thing. It adds weight, which can help or hinder depending on how you hit the ball.
Both Alred and Savage said that ideally a ball should be kicked so the valve spins end over end towards the target, the extra weight helping the ball to stay on course if the ball is struck truly.
Taking a ball from concept to finished product runs in cycles. “It’s mathematical fundamentals and aerodynamic principles, then you try to prototype something and you test it from there,” said Savage. “It would usually take at least five iterations for each single thing you might change. That’s probably a year to a year-and-half’s work.”
But it’s not all about engineers, mathematics and kicking machines. Paul Grayson has been testing balls for Gilbert for a decade. “I kick a lot of balls and see if they’re any good or not,” said the former England place kicker, drily. “There’s only so much machines can do. They can’t give you feedback on feel.” Not every prototype is a winner, and “occasionally you’ll get one that hurts like bloody hell”. He’s okay with that, because there’s always a good idea behind it. But when it comes to telling the engineer how exactly his foot feels “that’s where your robot can’t talk to you”.