You all know the story. William Webb Ellis, with a fine disregard for the rules of the game and all that, picked up the ball and ran with it at Rugby School in 1823, thereby inventing the game of rugby football.
We don’t have time to go into what happened to him after that, except to say he had an extraordinarily varied career as a priest before eventually being buried in a tiny churchyard outside Monaco. What matters for the moment is that the ball he picked up and ran with was made by….Gilbert.
The same Gilbert who is supplying the match balls for the Rugby World Cup 192 years later. And in the way that Tiger Woods gave Nike golf balls that most valuable of all moments at Augusta all those years ago, the same Gilbert that Jonny Wilkinson sent soaring into rugby immortality between the goalposts of Sydney on that famous November night in 2003.
William Gilbert has a lot to answer for. He had a small shop in Rugby High Street at the start of the 19th century, describing himself as a “shoemaker and football manufacturer.” No-one ever seems to have clarified why he made the ball oval, but let’s all be glad he did. Richard Gray, Sales and Marketing director, certainly is. While Gilbert have recently expanded their clothing range, their prime driver is according to Gray “getting people involved in the sport, which is why nearly everything we sell is about the actual playing of rugby football. Since we bought Gilbert in 2002, the game has grown unbelievably, which is obviously great news for us, because you can’t play the game without a ball. But what people probably don’t realise is that the development of the ball itself is one of the most fascinating aspects of the past 20 years of the sport.”
Those of you of certain age who are reading this will have played most of your rugby with a leather ball that weighed like a ton when it got wet, which not only made kicking nigh-on impossible, but on the flip side at least gave you ample excuses for all those passes you dropped. In 1986, the leather ball bade farewell to the international arena, replaced by that multiplex ball made of PVC and synthetic leather that was the forerunner of what was to come.
People still kept dropping the ball though. So when the game went professional in 1995, the sport’s hierarchy started pushing for the grip on the ball to be improved. The fewer the knock-ons, the fewer the scrums, the better the spectacle. At least that’s the logic. “But there’s always a compromise to be made,” says Gray. “A ball that is easier to handle, by necessity can’t be kicked quite as far, but that’s what the authorities want.” Which is why the current ball is all about “the grip pattern and formulation on top of a layer of natural rubber.” And you thought a ball was just a ball. The best analogy says Gray, is with Formula One tyres which are constantly undergoing changes to produce maximum performance.
Gilbert have been using the former England fly-half Paul Grayson as their consultant in developing the current international ball, and the 2015 version will feel “markedly different” says Gray, to the one that was used as recently as the New Zealand World Cup just four years ago. At least it will to those at the top end of the game. These days, getting on for 90 per cent of all club matches in Britain and nearly every major tournament the world over feature Gilbert balls. “It’s a reputation we guard jealously,” says Gray. “Thousands of balls leave the factory every year bound for all corners of the globe, so in rugby terms, we really are one of the few truly worldwide brands."
And in case you’re wondering, they stopped making rugby balls out of genuine pig’s bladders in 1870, two years before William Webb Ellis breathed his last. It was another world then, and yet all these worlds later, remarkably it will still be Mr William Gilbert’s products that are at the heart of every match during this autumn’s sporting showpiece.
OFFICIAL BALL SUPPLIER TO THE RUGBY WORLD CUP 2015