Rugby balls are not ball shaped, so how did they get to be the shape they are - and why, exactly, are they still called balls?

The shape of the modern rugby ball that fans know and love – except when the bounce goes against our team – is a story of accident over design dating back two centuries to the fabled origins of the game.

Rugby lore has it that the game was invented 200 years ago, in 1823, when William Webb Ellis, after whom a certain trophy was named, “picked up the ball and ran with it”, at Rugby School in Warwickshire, England.

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Around that time, two rival local bootmakers, William Gilbert and Richard Lindon, made footballs for the public school, using pigs’ bladders. In the early years of the game, the same balls were used for football and rugby.

Apparently because of the materials used, the balls were neither always football shaped or rugby ball shaped, but usually looked more like an oversized plum. Until 1892, when ball dimensions were first written into rugby’s laws, they came in a range of shapes and sizes. Basically, What You Got Was What You Were Given.

Why is the rugby ball an oval shape?

In the 1860s, Lindon had started testing new materials to manufacture rugby balls. By 1870 he was using rubber bladders. That, fortuitously or otherwise depending on your point of view, led to balls of an elongated, oval shape that modern fans would see as more recognisably ‘rugby ball’. 

He also had to develop an air pump to inflate these balls with the rubber inner tube. He would later claim the shape was a deliberate decision. 

The name Gilbert is still strongly associated with rugby balls. The name Lindon isn’t – in part because he did not patent his design for the ball, the internal rubber bladder, or the pump. How different the game’s history could have been…

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The regulation size and shape of the ball was first written into rugby football’s laws in 1892. The game’s gatekeepers then decided a ball should be 11 to 11 ¼ inches long, 30 to 31 inches in circumference (from end to end), 25 ½ to 26 inches maximum width circumference, and weigh 12 to 13 ounces. Balls should also, the rules in 1892 said, be hand-sewn with a minimum eight stitches per inch.

Things haven’t changed that much, other than switching from imperial to metric. Under current laws, a full-size rugby ball is 28cm to 30cm long, 74cm to 77cm in circumference (end to end), 58cm to 62cm maximum width circumference, and weighs 410 grammes to 460 grammes.

But what’s in a name? Why is a rugby ball still called a ball, rather than – for example – a rugby oval? Simple history and tradition.

They’re called balls, because they’ve always been called balls. Because, in the beginning, they were balls. 

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