The rugby shirt is “the ultimate piece of sporting apparel”, but what changes might we see in the future, and what’s holding back that evolution?
In 2003 rugby union changed forever. Not just because of Jonny Wilkinson and company becoming the first northern hemisphere team to lift the Rugby World Cup but because of what they were wearing when they did it.
England’s 2003 rugby kit had the first of the modern skin-tight rugby shirts – Nike’s first attempt to create a jersey that would make England’s players (particularly Jason Robinson) harder to tackle. In doing so, the 2003 Nike jersey abandoned many of the most sacred tenets of rugby kit, tossing heavyweight cotton, loose fits, long sleeves and proper collars by the wayside in the pursuit of marginal gains.
Had England not won that 2003 World Cup, maybe those shirts would have been a footnote in history, but they did and as a result every single modern professional rugby shirt is in some way descended from that 2003 design.
Evolution not revolution in rugby kit
But why did it stop there? Well to find out, I asked someone who understands the evolution of rugby shirts better than most. Matthew Dehaty is the current Buying Director at Gymshark, but before that he had various roles at Nike, including a period as the company’s Global Product Line Manager for rugby – during which time he had a hand in creating what is to my mind the most beautiful rugby shirt of the last 20 years, Argentina’s 50th Anniversary jersey from 2015. This is a man who knows rugby kit.
When I ask Matt why we haven’t seen more change in rugby shirts since 2003, his answer highlights how unprecedented that evolutionary leap was in the first place.
“The change in 2003 was a revolution that changed the look of rugby forever,” he explains. “Those shifts are few and far between. The equivalent change in football, for example, happened much slower. It’s credit to the 2003 teams working with Nike for being open to the change in pursuit of a 1% edge. A description of the work that Clive Woodward’s team did with Nike to give Jason Robinson an edge, that’s the reason I wanted to work in sports apparel manufacturing in the first place.”
Wear and tear
One key area where there has been a significant but under-the-radar change in rugby shirts over the last two decades is in the strength and durability of those jerseys. If you think back to 2003, it was common for those Nike shirts to rip under duress but we hardly ever see that any more – this in itself is a remarkable achievement.
Back in 2015 Adidas made a film about the All Blacks World Cup jersey titled, ‘The Making Of Black’. In it, Adidas’ then Global VP of Rugby, Simon Cartwright, explained that a rugby jersey was, “the ultimate piece of sporting apparel – there’s no piece of apparel in any other sport or industry that goes through the same wear and tear as a rugby jersey”.
It’s a remarkable claim but one that bears out in the heavy R&D that major sportswear brands such as Adidas, Nike and Under Armour have undertaken to ensure the shirts stay on the players’ backs. As Dehaty explains, however, this need for durability on-field has hampered the development of rugby shirts in the years since.
“Nike created a mechanical arm with the scientists at Progressive Sports, based at Loughborough University,” Matt recalls. “This arm essentially created a superhuman force that could tear any fabric, but in a repeatable manner. All Nike rugby jerseys had to meet that standard. This was fantastic for durability but it did stand in the way of innovation.”
Cash is the question
Furthermore, back in 2003, seven of the 20 teams competing at the Rugby World Cup were kitted out by a global blue-chip sportswear brand – Nike, Adidas, Puma, etc. Fast-forward to 2023 and it’s just three.
This is another reason why the pace of change has slowed down – rugby has become the preserve of smaller sportswear brands like Macron or Castore, and these smaller brands simply don’t have the financial clout to invest in R&D.
And even for massive brands like Adidas, there seems to have been a slow-down in innovation and investment – a few years ago each new All Blacks kit launch would be accompanied by huge fanfare about all the minute and innovative technical innovations built into the black jersey.
There hasn’t been a mention of triaxles or ‘woven carbon’ lately, with Adidas’ focus being primarily on making more sustainable jerseys from an environmental standpoint. If Adidas or Nike would rather devote their R&D energy to football, basketball or other sports, it makes it less likely we’ll see huge leaps forward in rugby shirt tech.
Rules and regs for rugby kit
And that’s assuming that World Rugby would even let you innovate in the rugby kit sphere. The governing body’s regulations around what you’re allowed to wear on the field are very clear and somewhat restrictive.
World Rugby law 4.2 states that, “A player wears a jersey, shorts and underwear, socks and boots. The sleeve of a jersey must extend at least halfway from the shoulder point to the elbow.” And that in itself restricts some of the wackier innovations that kit manufacturers might have trialled and tested over the last few years, as Dehaty recalls.
“I wasn’t directly involved but a prototype of an all-in-one rugby suit was created,” he explains. “I think it started with England Sevens but this never came to market and probably wouldn’t sit within the laws of the game. Several teams were also interested in playing with sleeveless jerseys but again, that was only ever accepted in a training environment.”
So how could rugby kit evolve?
With limited budgets and strict rules to adhere to then, it does feel like we won’t be seeing too many 2003-esque game-changing leaps forward in the near future. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no scope to evolve shirts to be better than they are today.
Dehaty cites individually tailored and fitted jerseys for each player as one aspect where modern production techniques could be used to ensure that rugby shirts could be as varied as the shapes and sizes of the players who fit in them.
Another area where rugby might end up going forwards is by looking backwards in terms of the look and feel of the shirts themselves. Let’s face it, most of us also don’t love the feel of polyester versus cotton and other traditional fabrics, but thanks to leaps forward in the production of modern fabrics, this is an area where the rugby shirts of tomorrow might look and feel a lot more like they did 30 years ago – but with all the performance and durability benefits of a modern jersey.
“I can see a return to much more traditional styling and visuals,” Dehaty says. “The business of replica jerseys is built off what people are willing to wear in the street. Making jerseys with a classic styling and fit is much more conducive to replica sales.”
Rugby has eagerly adopted the wearing of GPS tracking units in player jerseys over the last decade, and this is another area that’s likely to expand both from a data-gathering perspective and crucially how that data is used to enhance the fan experience.
“What I do see being attractive is in-game stats from these tools being shared live – collisions, top speed metrics – as part of the live viewing experience,” explains Dehaty. “But I’d put money on another sport doing this before rugby union! I can also imagine a world, not so far away, where sub-dermal trackers are implanted into players to monitor various aspects of biochemistry such as internal temperature, hydration and so on.”
Another area where innovation might sneak in is via the back door. World Rugby now allows players to wear leggings on 4G pitches to prevent burns from the plastic surface, but could these leggings be tweaked to offer performance benefits? There’s certainly an argument to be made that an outside back being able to keep their legs warm on a cold, windy night somewhere like Kingston Park could offer a performance benefit…
If there were to be such a thing, it wouldn’t take long for other teams to cotton on, or complain to World Rugby about it. As Dehaty reflects, “The trouble with competitive advantages in sport is that unless they’re open to all, they tend to get banned pretty quick.”