Of the many legendary names written in Rugby World Cup history, an unsung gentleman named Mr. Gilbert may be deserving of the most respect. This is the story of how one man’s brand became a Rugby World Cup legend.
The name Gilbert is synonymous with both Rugby Union and the Rugby World Cup. It is also a name likely to send a shiver down the spines of poor pigs the length and breadth of Great Britain.
As old as the Game itself, Gilbert had been the boot and shoe maker to Rugby School in Warwickshire in the early part of the 19th Century. Founded by William Gilbert, the company was already supplying balls to the school when William Webb Ellis is said to have picked one of them up and run with it, thus inadvertently inventing the Game of Rugby Football.
Those early balls were ‘footballs of leather dressed expressly for the purpose,’ according to Gilbert literature of the time. Inside each ball was fitted a pig’s bladder that helped the ball inflate, usually by mouth.
“In the early days of Rugby Football there was little regulation on the size and shape of the ball,” says Gilbert brand manager Andrew Challis. “So early versions were much more rounded than later ones, owing to the shape of the pigs bladder.”
The invention of the rubber bladder, in 1875, was good news for pigs and for the Game, as it meant the ball’s shape could be predetermined. As the popularity of the Gilbert ball spread with the Game across the globe, player preferences began to literally help shape the ball.
“Players in the southern hemisphere preferred a thinner, longer ball whereas players in the north preferred a shorter more rounded ball,” explains Challis. “It was this more rounded shape that gradually became the accepted form globally – largely because it improved handling abilities.”
Gilbert’s reputation for craftsmanship helped establish it as the ball of choice within the Game. In those early years, every ball was painstakingly hand-stitched and overseen by William Gilbert himself – and given that by 1875, Gilbert were reputedly producing 2,800 balls a year, the founder was a very busy man.
Such attention to detail didn’t go unnoticed in Rugby Union’s corridors of power, but it took until 1995 for Gilbert to receive what is effectively Rugby Union's Royal seal of approval. That year, the Gilbert Barbarian was chosen as the Official Ball of Rugby World Cup 1995. In the year the Game finally went professional, it was an apt and understandable choice to use the world’s foremost Rugby ball brand.
“It has been a huge honour to support all levels of the Game since the brand began but perhaps the one honour which gives evidence to the Gilbert ball being the much preferred choice of those that play the Game is being the Official Ball of Rugby World Cup,” says Challis. “And obviously it’s with great pride that we have now supplied our balls to every Rugby World Cup since.”
The Game has clearly moved on since William Gilbert’s day, and while the shape of the ball remains largely in line with his early vision, the technology involved in creating each ball has kept pace with the Game’s modern demands.
“The rate of change in how Rugby union is played has been huge over the past few decades – largely since the Game went professional,” says Challis. “Players demand a ball that can be relied upon to help them display their skill to the best of their ability. At Gilbert we take this responsibility very seriously. As the Game develops, so must the ball – we never forget that.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The evolution of the Rugby World Cup ball
Gilbert has supplied the official ball for the last five Tournaments and is again providing the ball at Rugby World Cup 2015. On each occasion, their ball has pushed the boundaries of technology.
RWC 1995: Gilbert Barbarian
In their first Rugby World Cup ball, Gilbert had perfected the manufacturing capability to ensure that each and every ball was virtually identical – a key element for players. The Barbarian was their first to display the now iconic Gilbert ellipses oval-shaped design – a design that has become a registered Gilbert trademark.
RWC 1999: Gilbert Revolution
A small but significant revolution, the 1999 ball featured a newly-developed rubber compound and used bonded coloured rubber to create the brand’s trademark ellipses. The development helped reduce the amount of ink on the ball and, crucially, improved the grip.
RWC 2003: Gilbert Xact
For England’s winning campaign, the Gilbert Xact ball featured a new pimple pattern with increased height and greater dispersion that was designed to further improve the player’s grip on the ball.
RWC 2007: Gilbert Synergie
For the first time, in 2007, gone were Gilbert’s trademark ellipses. In their place came star-shaped, multi-height pimples designed to improve grip without impacting on the ball’s aerodynamics.
RWC 2011 : Gilbert Virtuo
Featuring Maori-inspired insignia on the ball’s edges, the 2011 ball’s improvements were this time focussed on the inside. The bladder and valve were reworked to create a ball with improved rotational stability – resulting in better passing accuracy and less air loss during the match.
: Gilbert Match-XV
The earliest named Gilbert ball was dubbed ‘Match’, partly inspiring the name given to 2015 ball. “We felt that with Rugby World Cup coming back to the home of the Game (in 2015/XV), the names links the modern precision Rugby ball with its heritage and refers back to the origins of both Gilbert and the Game itself,” says Andrew Challis. Rolled out a year ahead of the Tournament to enable players to literally get to grips with the new design, they will have benefited from a new surface compound that improves grip, while improved surface water dispersion provides them with a softer and more pliable feel in the hand.
This article was commissioned via NewsCred's NewsRoom and written by freelance contributor Nick Harper.