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Size and Shape

World Rugby requires that the official size 5 rugby ball be oval and made of 4 panels that are leather or a suitable synthetic material. There are variations between ‘official’ balls, however, as World Rugby allows balls to have a length in line between 280 and 300 millimeters, an end-to-end circumference of 740 to 770 millimeters, and width circumference of 580 to 620 millimeters.

The degree which the ends are rounded play a huge role in how the ball plays. In general the more pointed the ends, the better the ball is for passing, but the more difficult to kick. More rounded ends are easier to kick and control, but more difficult and slower to pass.

Size 5 balls are the official ball used by both men’s and women’s teams in senior international competitions but is not the only size rugby ball. Smaller balls are available geared toward junior and youth rugby. The most common are:

- Size 4 [Length – 275mm (10.8 inches), Circ Length – 720mm (28.3 inches), Circ Girth – 555mm (21.9 inches)]
- Size 3 [Length – 255mm (10 inches), Circ Length – 680mm (26.8 inches), Circ Girth – 540mm (21.3 inches)].

Rugby Ball Grip

A textured ‘pimpled’ outer layer provide players with a true grip on the ball. The spacing, shape and depth of the pimples on the ball determines to a large extent how the ball performs. The grip on a rugby ball is carefully considered to balance between how easy a ball is to catch versus how far it can be passed or kicked.

A higher pimple will generally give more grip but reduce kicking distance. The grip pattern can also affect how long the grip will remain on the ball. Lower profile rounder pimples will last longer than higher, angular pimples but they will give less grip. This is why you will see different grip types for different types of rugby.

The needs of 15’s rugby is different from 7’s rugby and even more different than those of touch rugby with each game requiring different levels of kicking and passing.

Grip is also affected by the type of rubber used to make the ball. Natural rubber provides more grip and synthetic rubber provides greater durability. Generally match balls will have a higher ratio of natural rubber to synthetic rubber to provide better grip. Conversely, training balls will generally have more synthetic rubber, to provide a more durable surface compound.

A note on surface types and wet weather. In some cases higher end rugby balls (like the Match XV from Gilbert) use special compounds to perform better in wet conditions than non-treated balls. While this can make a difference, it is more important to consider the type of game being played before considering whether a ball is more designed for wet weather.

Panel Construction

How a rugby ball’s panels are constructed affects the shape retention, weight and energy transfer properties of the ball. Typically a panel consists of an outer layer where the rubber and grip are present and a number of layers or ‘plys’ between the outer layer and the bladder.

Match balls are generally 3 ply in construction, and training balls are a mixture of 3 ply and 2 ply.

A 3 ply ball will weigh more, and be less affected by wind than a 2 ply ball making it more ideal for kicking and long passing. A 3 ply ball will also generally hold its shape better than a 2 ply ball.

The materials used in the ply’s construction can also affect the way the balls respond to being kicked, especially in regard to how the energy is transferred into the bladder.

You will typically see three main types of materials used in the construction of the ply’s or “layers” below the outer cover. Cotton laminate, poly-cotton laminate, or some sort of polyester or other synthetic material laminate.

Cotton is cheaper than synthetic materials and is not as good at energy transfer (i.e. putting your kicking power into the ball) as synthetics. This is why you see increasingly more cotton construction the lower the quality of ball. The very best match balls have full synthetic ply construction using special energy transferring materials.

No matter how many or what type of ply’s are used, it is important that rugby balls be stored properly away from extreme hot/cold and weather or the shape can be affected over time. Consistently over-inflating or sitting on balls can also alter their shape.

Bladder

The bladder is probably the most vital component in determining how a rugby ball performs. Bladders are available in different varieties and sizes, depending on the use of the ball. Traditionally, match and training balls use a natural latex bladder, which has high resilience, and provides a ball with good rebound characteristics. The down side of a natural latex bladder is that the surface is permeable, and allows air to pass through it, meaning that the balls need to be correctly re-inflated about once a week. There are advanced co-polymer bladders available, pioneered largely by Gilbert, which have equivalent resilience characteristics to natural latex, but that are non-permeable to air, therefore remaining inflated for much longer periods sometimes upwards of 1-2 months.

Roughly speaking:

Natural Latex: Soft, bounces well, but leaks air (slowly).

Butyl Bladders: Offer an excellent combo of feel and air retention, typically in mid- to upper ranged balls*

Proprietary synthetics: Gilbert’s Air-Loc bladder is an excellent example of a co-polymer bladder that retains the qualities of natural latex without losing air. More expensive material used in higher quality balls but results in a ball that should hold air up to 1-2 months.

Valve shape and placement

The valve provides the means to inflate a Rugby ball, but also plays a key part in how the ball performs. The valve is essentially a weight that creates an imbalance. This can be used to either enhance or detract from the performance of the ball. If the valve is placed and constructed ideally, as in a high quality match ball, the rotation of the ball is improved which increases accuracy and distance of passing and kicking by improving the spiral action. In lower quality training balls the valve can reduce the accuracy and distance when compared to a match ball because the imbalance can offset the spiral action.

As a rough rule of thumb, match balls will have the valve placed in the seam of the ball as this helps distribute the weight to most effectively improve rotation whereas training balls will usually have the valve in the middle of one of the panels which creates a slightly more lopsided spin.

Pre-Kicking

You will sometimes see the designation, particularly on high end match balls, that a ball has been ‘Pre-Kicked’. While this may seem excessive, this helps the ball find its correct shape after inflation more quickly than a ball which has not been pre kicked and also helps detect any defects in manufacturing. This one more advantage of a premium match ball over other balls.