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The Ball

Carl Mullen signs rugby ball for small boy

The pioneers

Richard Lindon (1816 - 1887) and William Gilbert (1799-1877) started making balls for Rugby school out of hand stitched, four-panel, leather casings and pigs’ bladders. Both men owned boot and shoe making businesses located close to Rugby school. Originally, Gilbert's business was located at 19 High Street and Lindon lived next door as a young man at number 20 . The High street led directly to Rugby schools quad entrance which is where the boys played football (quad ball) before Rugby school gained its playing fields.

19 high street   20 high street
19 High Street
20 High street

In 1842 William Gilbert moved his shop from 19 High Street in Rugby to 5 St. Matthews Street which was directly opposite Rugby Schools playing field, known as "The Close".

gilbert shop
Webb Ellis Rugby Museum (Formally Gilbert workshop). 5 St. Matthews Street, Rugby.

Lindon's shop was in 6 Lawrence Sheriff Street and was directly opposite the Quad Entrance. Read more about Lindon and Quad rugger here

lindon shop


lindon shop 2
R Lindon's shop, 6 Lawrence Sheriff Street, Rugby. (Oct 2006).

They turned their skills to the making of balls for the boys of Rugby school and by the 1850's William Gilbert and Richard Lindon, were the two main suppliers of the pig's bladder & leather clad balls to the boys of Rugby School. 

Shape and Size

In fact it is the shape of the pigs bladder which is reputed to have given the rugby ball it's distinctive oval shape although balls of those days were more plum shape than oval. The balls also varied in size in the beginning depending upon how large the pig’s bladder was.

hand stiching a ball   old ball

In those early days it was necessary to ask for volunteers to inflate the ball for it was not a job that was sought after. The pigs bladder would be blown up while still in its very smelly ‘green state’ solely by lung power down the snapped stem of a clay pipe which was inserted into the opening of the bladder.

There is no record as to when the ball became less round and more oval in shape but there is a reference in Tom Brown's school days by Thomas Hughes, an old boy from Rugby school, i.e. "the new ball you may see lie there, quite by itself, in the middle, pointing towards the school goal" which indicates that the ball had become more oval by 1835 when the game was supposed to have taken place.

The size and shape of the ball was not written into the rules until 1892:
- Length 11 to 11 1/4 inches
- Circumference (end on) 30 to 31 inches
- Circumference (in width) 25 1/2 to 26 inches
- Weight: 12 to 13 ounces
- Hand sewn with not less than 8 stitches to the inch

The weight was reduced to 13 to 14 1/2 ounces in 1893.
The width of the ball was reduced to 24 to 25 1/2 inches and the weight was increased to 13 1/2 to 15 ounces in 1931.

making a ball

2004 IRB Law 2 states:
The ball must be oval and made of four panels.
Length in line 280 - 300 millimeters
Circumference (end to end) 740 - 770 millimeters
Circumference (in width) 580 - 620 millimeters
Material: Leather or suitable synthetic material. It may be treated to make it water resistant and easier to grip.
Weight: 410 - 460 grams
Air pressure at start of play: 65.71-68.75 kilopascals, or 0.67-0.70 kilograms per square centimeter, or 9.5-10.0 lbs per square inch.

irb ball


Richard Lindon

Richard Lindon 1816-1887

Richard Lindon's wife (who used to blow up the bladder based rugby balls for her husband) contracted a lung disease thought to have come from years of blowing up pig's bladders (some of which were most probably diseased) and died.

In the 1850s vulcanised rubber was invented by an American, Charles Goodyear and separately by Thomas Hancock in the UK in 1843/4.

Around 1862 Richard Lindon introduced Indian rubber bladder inner-tubes and because of the pliability of rubber the shape of the balls gradually changed from a sphere to the shape we know today. Richard Lindon, having observed the ordinary ear syringe also invented the Brass Hand Pump as rubber bladders were far too difficult to inflate by mouth, which he demonstrated, and won medals, at an exhibition in London. Richard Lindon also claimed to invent the rugby ball and its distinctive oval shape but sadly, for him, didn't patent either the ball, the bladder or the pump. By the 1880s there were several manufacturers of 'footballs' in England all using the same process.

brass hand pump
Richard Lindon's 1875 brass hand pump (above right) and the later invention of the foot pump (above left) used until the 1930s

Charles Macintosh & Co.

Messrs. Charles Macintosh & Co. were the first manufacturer to supply rubber bladders in sufficient quantities to make standardization possible. Charles Macintosh (1766-1843) is known internationally as the inventor of the (almost) eponymous mackintosh raincoat which he developed between 1823 and his death in 1843. Chas. Macintosh & Co. was formed by the merger of Charles Macintosh and Thomas Hancock's businesses in 1831. Chas. Mackintosh & Co. (with its name unchanged) continued until 1923 when it was taken over by Dunlop. Production on the Manchester site only ceased in 2000 although the original factory was destroyed in 1940. The present factory is now the centre of a regeneration programme for the ‘Southern Gateway’ to Manchester. 


Credit: IRB video on history and making of Rugby ball

'Gilbert' became one of the most popular makers of rugby balls and has been making rugby balls since the game's conception. William Gilbert had a boot and shoe makers shop next to Rugby school in the high street and started making balls for the school out of hand stitched, four panel, leather casings and real pigs bladders (he also made catapults for the boys).

school boy with balls
Harrow School Pupil Circa 1935 Credit Getty Images

William was responsible for the leather stand made for the London Exhibition in 1851 which can be seen in the present Gilbert museum. The ball is hanging from the cross bar of a Rugby goal in a stand designed by Mr M H Bloxham.

When William died, his nephew James Gilbert (1831-1906) succeeded him. James was reputed to be "..a wonder of lung strength and blew even the big match balls up tight". This was achieved by inserting a clay pipe into the neck of the bladder once it was encased in leather and blowing until the fully inflated.

In 1906 on the death of James, his son James John Gilbert (1857-1917) took over the family business. As well as his involvement in manufacturing the balls, James John was also an enthusiastic player for the Rugby Club and a keen follower of the game in general.

The last Gilbert involved in the company, James, was serving in the army in France when his father died in 1917. After the war he returned to run the firm being the fourth generation of his family to be involved in the business. James Gilbert was meticulous in everything he did, from keeping accounts, to ensuring that every Gilbert ball retained the companies reputation for excellence. He wrote countless letters to keep the Gilbert name at the forefront of the game and it was largely through his efforts that the Gilbert ball was exported to the major Rugby playing countries of the world particularly New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. He checked and stamped every Match ball personally to make sure it was of the highest quality.

By now, each nation had its own preferences with Australia and New Zealand favouring the pointed (Torpedo) shape and South Africa the 8-panel which offered better grip. In Britain, Ireland and France, most balls were now of 4-panel construction but 6 panels were still in use. Player pressure resulted in the balls being reduced in size by one inch by GILBERT, which subsequently lead to a change in rules in 1932.

In 1946 GILBERT formed a joint venture with the Glasgow based soccer ball brand Tomlinson’s who were responsible for much of the distribution and the marketing of the brand until the 1970s.

Letter to Rugby School from James Gilbert 1958,
Kindly supplied by Chris Gilbert

The GILBERT Match remained the ball of choice for the majority of major matches during this time, but with the advent of new materials and brands challenging GILBERT’s traditional leather business, the brand experienced difficult times and the Gilbert family decided to sell the business in 1978.

Gilbert Match Ball.
Picture kindly supplied by Chris Gilbert

The items James Gilbert collected from his contacts in the game form the basis for the Gilbert museum established in 1987. Since those early days the Gilbert ball has been used by almost every rugby nation and at all levels of the game.

Catologue kindly supplied by Chris Gilbert

GILBERT passed through the control of 3 different owners through the 1980s and 1990s, during which time they embraced and perfected the use of new synthetic technologies in its new Barbarian match ball.

GILBERT have developed a new ball for each Rugby World Cup since 1995 when it was adopted as the Official Ball in South Africa, however, more financial difficulties in 2002 led to the acquisition of GILBERT by Grays of Cambridge, another family business of long standing (founded by Harry Gray 1855) and, by a quirk of fate, the brand returned to its birthplace at 19, High Street in Rugby, where Grays were operating a sports shop. Although Gilbert is no longer an independent company, the name is being maintained by Grays as a strong 'traditional' brand, under Grays stewardship GILBERT’s technical heritage can continue.

The Rugby World Cup in Australia in 2003 once again showcased the latest in GILBERT’s ball development programme, the Xact match ball. As a result of the ball’s performance in the lead up to this tournament both New Zealand All Blacks and The British and Irish Lions switched their allegiance to GILBERT’s balls joining South Africa, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France and a host of other nations, clubs and tournaments around the world.

The Xact technology was enhanced further for the 2005 World Cup Sevens in Hong Kong with a patented star-shaped grip pattern – the first ever departure from round pimples and the 2007 edition is to be used at the RWC in France. The patented surface technology on the new synergie match ball is unique to GILBERT and has arisen by combining the existing pimple patterns of the Xact and Xact-7 match balls and the application of basic aerodynamic principles.

The Gilbert World Cup ball has been well received by nearly all teams at RWC  

The GILBERT synergie ball was usde at the 2007 Rugby World Cup and received the thumbs up from players and administrators alike.

The ball was specifically designed to deliver the same kicking performance as the Xact ball used in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, while offering improved handling. Data commissioned from a leading independent sports statistics provider proves that this objective has been achieved in the tournament to date, with kicking success on a par with 2003 and superb handling and improved offloading from the tackle much in evidence.

Although no official complaint had been made by any of the participating teams, RWC Limited requested that GILBERT investigate some comments received from New Zealand questioning the quality of the balls used in practice.

Extensive research, comprising laboratory and on-field tests, discussion with players and administrators and a thorough analysis of logistics has enabled the ball manufacturer to prove without reservation that there is no difference between any of the balls used throughout the tournament nor with the GILBERT synergie balls widely used in international matches since October 2006. It was concluded that any perceived differences reported can be explained by incorrect inflation and natural wear and tear, and this was then explained to the teams.

Chairman of Rugby World Cup, Dr Syd Miller, stated “I commend GILBERT on their rapid response to our questions and the thoroughness of their research, which has left no stone unturned. This proves conclusively that the decision to select GILBERT, and more particularly the synergie ball, for RWC 2007 was the correct one.

“GILBERT have been making balls since the game was first invented and have now supplied balls for four successive World Cups. They know what they are doing”.

GILBERT Sales & Marketing Director, Richard Gray, commented, “We were taken aback by the comments made and the subsequent damaging media coverage - which had no basis whatsoever. Of course it is sometimes more difficult to adapt to a ball if you have been used to a different product and this perhaps explains the contrast between a few comments from some quarters and the actual kicking performances overall throughout the tournament.

“We are delighted but not surprised that RWC Limited have accepted our findings without reservation and have once again given their stamp of approval to our products.”

5th November 2009

Rugby World Cup Limited (RWCL) announced that Gilbert has been awarded the contract to supply balls to Rugby World Cup 2011 and Rugby World Cup 2015.

A world leader in match ball innovation and development in international Rugby for more than a century, the UK-based firm will supply the match, training and replica balls for Rugby's global showcase event.

"Gilbert is a brand that is synonymous with Rugby World Cup, having supplied balls for the tournament since 1995, and RWCL is delighted to be extending the relationship with a partner that has proven to be both a strong supporter of the tournament and the world leader in Rugby ball performance," said RWCL Chairman Bernard Lapasset.

28th April 2011

RWC2011 match ball
Gilbert International Brand Manager Andy Challis and former All Black Aaron Mauger at the launch of the official RWC 2011 Match Ball.

The Official Match Ball for Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand was been launched by Gilbert at a special event in Auckland.

The Virtuo is the latest in a succession of balls to be engineered by Gilbert specifically for Rugby’s global showpiece Tournament and has been launched after rigorous testing, including an extensive Test match programme. The Virtuo features exciting new performance developments including innovative valve and bladder designs that will deliver superior shape retention and spin rate over previous Gilbert match balls.

Rugby World Cup Limited Chairman Bernard Lapasset said: “Gilbert is a brand that is synonymous with Rugby World Cup, having supplied balls for all tournaments since 1995. We are delighted to be launching an Official Rugby World Cup 2011 Match Ball that does not just look great, but will deliver another advance in performance through Gilbert’s expertise.”

“There are many facets that go into making RWC 2011 a success and without question ensuring that all the teams have the best possible Rugby ball to play with is certainly one of them. We are enthused by how well the Virtuo has been received by the elite playing community.”

Richard Gray, Sales and Marketing Director of Grays International, added: “We are honoured that yet again Rugby World Cup Limited have entrusted to Gilbert the responsibility of producing the RWC 2011 Official Match Ball. No one more than Gilbert understands the need for absolute precision in the manufacture of a top quality Rugby ball to perform on the world stage.”

“The Virtuo is without question our best ball yet. Since its creation we have put the ball through its paces. So far it has seen action in the autumn series of Internationals and throughout the Six Nations – over 30 hours play time of International Rugby. By July every RWC 2011 participating Union will have played and/or trained with the ball for extended periods. The Virtuo has exceeded our expectations.”

Replica Gilbert Official match balls have been selling well online at and in store via official outlets around the world, but fans will now be able to get their hands on 1,000 limited edition boxed match balls, each with their own certificate.

Gilbert Manufacturing Techniques

Layers of cotton and polyester material are bonded together using glue. This is then covered with a layer of rubber to produce the laminate sheets that the ball panels are cut from. The sheets are printed with the desired panel design and then cut into panel shapes using a knife. The knife is a specially designed metal tool used to cut the exact shape of each panel. The cutting process uses a hydraulic press and templates to ensure accuracy.

Press and Knife

The panels are hand stitched using Polyester thread, that is coated with a man made wax which makes the thread stronger, waterproof and helps to lock the stitches together. Two needles are used to form double lock stitches.

The Sticher's Horse

The Stitcher sits on a “horse”, which has a tool for clamping the balls in the correct position and leaves the hands free for stitching. Initially, two halves of the ball are stitched together inside out. The Stitcher then starts on the third seam of the ball at the mid point of its length, and stitches around the end of the ball, to the mid point of the fourth seam. At this point, the ball is turned the right way out, and the bladder is glued into position.

The loose stitches create a hole

The Stitcher then continues around the other half of the ball to complete the fourth seam, and almost complete the third seam. The Stitcher then makes 10 or so large loop stitches, which allows them to finish the ball. The ball is finished by pushing the needles through the end of the ball, and then tightening the loop stitches – rather like lacing a shoe, which creates extra thread in the middle of the ball. This thread is then removed by pulling the needles, and the end of the ball is then pushed towards its centre, a knot is tied into the threads and the remaining thread is cut. The ball is then pulled into shape, and the knot goes inside the ball.

As the thread is pulled the stitches tighten and the ball is completed


Outer Surface

Varying amounts of natural rubber are used for the outer surface of GILBERT balls. A higher percentage of natural rubber gives the ball better grip, however it reduces the longevity of the ball. The converse is also true; a lower percentage of natural rubber reduces the grip qualities, but increases the longevity.

Rubber is used because of its excellent grip properties in all weather conditions

Backing Material

This is the material in the ball that holds the ball in the correct shape – without a good backing material, balls can go out of shape. Polyester is the material of choice, as it is strong, and also gives excellent energy transfer, which is paramount for good kicking characteristics.

Various numbers of laminations are used, depending on the end use of the ball.


This is arguably the most important component of any rugby ball, because the bladder has the ability to store energy that is imparted into it, and then release it at speed – which determines how far the ball can be kicked, and also how it bounces.

Natural Latex is used to make the bladder, because of it’s elasticity, and resilience. Latex will allow air to pass through it, which is why match and training balls need inflating regularly.


The specifications of all size 5 rugby balls are determined by the International Rugby Board (iRB). Law 2 states

The ball must be oval and made of four panels.
Length in line 280 - 300 millimeters
Circumference (end to end) 740 - 770 millimeters
Circumference (in width) 580 - 620 millimeters
Leather or suitable synthetic material. It may be treated to make it water resistant and easier to grip.
410 - 460 grams
65.71-68.75 kilopascals, or 0.67-0.70 kilograms per square centimeter, or 9.5-10.0 lbs per square inch.

GILBERT manufactures their balls to specific dimensions and weight. All balls are made to tolerances of less than 2% to ensure consistency

Research and Development

For all ball developments, GILBERT uses a three-pronged approach to ensure that every possibility is covered.

University - To ensure that we use the best expertise and technologies in our rugby ball R&D programme we have links with various universities to assist with insights into aerodynamic performance. Theoretical studies using CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) combined with High Speed Video footage allow GILBERT to create a virtual training pitch to test various ideas

Engineering - Once ideas have been tested and conclusions drawn, GILBERT has the ability to rapid prototype, and therefore the ‘theory to sample’ process can take as little as 10 days. This means that prototype samples can be constantly tested, then amended in a short time frame, so that finished products can be ready in relatively short periods of time

Testing - The only real way to confirm if a project has worked is to test it in a real life situation. Initially balls are tested on training fields for various results such as distance, accuracy – and most importantly consistency. GILBERT have a mechanical kicking machine which has the ability to kick balls in the same way, and with the same force each time – this is vital for testing consistency. Players are also used to get feedback that cannot be quantified by using a machine – things like touch, feel and contact.

GILBERT Ball Technology

Multi Matrix 3D Grip – Maximises hand contact with the ball and provides ultimate passing and catching control. Performs in all conditions - Used on the synergie Match Ball only

Reaction Laminate – Ensures optimal energy transfer between boot and ball to improve strike consistency – Used on all GILBERT match balls

TruflightTM – the GILBERT patented TruflightTM Bladder improves aerodynamics to provide all match balls with ultimate balance and truer, longer flight. The unique valve in seam position ensures that the ball will not deviate from the line of kick, which results in greater accuracy – Used on all GILBERT match balls

XACT – 7 – Designed specifically for Sevens rugby to assist long accurate passing, one-handed off loads and increased ball security. The pimple formation also allows for controlled, accurate drop kicks. – Used on the Xact 7 Match Ball only

Hydratec – Technical fabrics and waterproof laminations are combined to enhance the life and performance of balls. The outer surface repels moisture to maintain ball shape – Used on all GILBERT balls – Match and Training

Pre-Kicked – Kicking Machines strike the ball repeatedly to remove residual stress. Ready for match play from the first kick - Used on the synergie and Revolution Match Balls only.

2015 RWC ball - launched August 2014

The MATCH XV is the latest in a succession of Gilbert Rugby balls to be specifically engineered for Rugby World Cup. Previous Gilbert balls; the Gilbert Barbarian (RWC 1995), Gilbert Revolution (RWC 1999), Gilbert Xact (RWC 2003), the Gilbert Synergie (RWC 2007) and the Gilbert Virtuo (2011) have all played their part in the development of the MATCH XV.

The rubber compound used to create the outer surface of the ball has been modified by the addition of several new elements. This has created a ball which is softer and more pliable feel in the hand but which is equally as durable as it predecessor. The dispersion of water over the surface of the ball is as a result enhanced and this together creates a ball with improved handling performance.

MATCH XV introdcued for the English Premiership and French Top 14 during August 2014 and used in top level test matches throughout 2014 and 2015.

IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset said: “From the playground to the Rugby World Cup podium, Gilbert has been a key player in spreading Rugby enjoyment, competition and growth around the world.”

“The Rugby World Cup 2015 MATCH XV ball is the pinnacle of Rugby ball evolution and we are delighted to be launching a match ball that does not just look great, but will deliver another advance in performance for players competing at our showcase event.”

“Preparation is key to ensuring Rugby World Cup is a success and without question ensuring that all the teams have the best possible Rugby ball to play with is certainly one of them. We are enthused by how well the MATCH XV has been received by players and coaches.”

Grays International Sales and Marketing Director Richard Gray added: “We are proud of our partnership with Rugby World Cup and the opportunity to provide the world’s top players with an innovative, yet evolved ball that will assist in showcasing their talents.”

“With England 2015 staged in the birth country of the sport, we are also proud that the MATCH XV will celebrate the rich heritage of Rugby and Gilbert, by recognising the very first hand-crafted MATCH balls that graced Rugby school and fields the world over from 1823.”

“With its strong features of tradition and innovation, we are confident the MATCH XV will soon be recognised as a modern classic.”


1. Gilbert information modified from original text provided by Gilbert over the years.
2. Lindon information provided by Simon Hawkesley
3. Press article for rugby world cup 2007 re. Gilbert balls.
4. Additional Gilbert information and images - Chris Gilbert.
5. Death certificate William Gilbert 1799-1877 (770/1/19/185)
6. Death certificate James Gilbert 1831-1906 (770/1/36/121)
7. Birth certificate James John Gilbert 1857-1917 (770/1/14/403)
8. Death certificate James John Gilbert 1857-1917 (770/1/2A/403)



There is some confusion concerning the year of birth for James John Gilbert (1857-1917):

  • Marriage cert 1883 - aged 27 therefore born 1856
  • Census of 1861 - age 4 therefore born in 1857
  • Census of 1891 - age 34 therefore born in 1857






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