Rugby is one of the UK's favourite sports, attracting large audiences to domestic, youth and international games. Rugby as a youth sport has developed significantly over the last decade in the UK, helping to improve the amount and calibre of young players being introduced into the game.
Sports Ball Shop are committed to providing an unrivalled range of rugby balls, featuring the leading brands and a variety of prices, sizes and specification.
Gilbert have been involved with the sport since 1823 and have been supplying the official rugby world cup ball since 1995. They were again the supplier for the 2011 rugby world cup in New Zealand. They are also acknowledged as the official match ball supplier and are the preferred choice for 8 of the top 10 rugby playing nations, including England, South Africa and Australia.
Lusum balls were created in 2011, by a group of players, coaches and technicians including an aerodynamicist. The coaches were frustrated at paying for balls that were obviously marked up to cover sponsorship deals.
Lusum decided to never pay sports sponsorships to players, clubs or leagues like other brands do. Because Lusum does not pay sponsorship, you pay up to 25% less for your ball - without having to compromise on the quality and performance.
Mitre is one of the best known rugby manufacturers in the world, producing and distributing thousands of balls across the world each year. If you're looking for high quality, long lasting training balls that represents excellent value for money, then Mitre is the brand for you.
The name of Webb Ellis has been associated with rugby since 1823. Their head office is still located in the birthplace town of Rugby. Webb Ellis are continuing to analyse hundreds of hours of footage to guage the performance of their balls, in all conditions.
They then use this data to produce rugby balls suitable for all levels of the game. Technology is always changing yet Webb Ellis still manage to be a leader and their RAPRA engineered rubber formula is a fine example. This formula is designed to repel water, to ensure the player gets the best grip in wet conditions.
Steeden was first established in Queensland Australia, in1958 by Ray Steeden. They produced leather footballs that are now the world's biggest brand in Rugby League. Steeden is now not under the control of the Grays family which also includes Gilbert Rugby, as the Steeden brand is managed within Europe by a new independent company.
Steeden were the official ball supplier to the Rugby League World Cup 2013.
The other day we were asked a question about rugby balls and why you would pay £100 plus for a Pro quality match ball rather than £10 for a good quality training ball, surely they can’t be 10 times better can they? So we had to explain the differences and why the Pro ball was so much more expensive, although we still couldn’t justify paying in excess of £100 for any type of match ball.
During my visit to one of the biggest rugby ball manufacturers in India, I watched the whole process of manufacture, from the mixing and macerating of the rubber compound, adding the grip, stitching the ball and the final quality check. It was fascinating to watch and I would recommend to anyone, if given the chance to view. The rubber compound is normally a mixture of 2 types of rubber - 1 which has more elasticity and the other is stronger. There can be many different grades of rubber used but generally they come from 2 types of tree giving different properties from each. When macerated and rolled out, giving a stronger and more durable material that changed the way rugby balls were made. Originally made from a pigs bladder then from a heavy leather material (which became heavier in wet conditions), the new method was developed in association with a delightful chap called Dr Raj, whom I had the pleasure of meeting. His passion was there to see and he was immensely proud of what he had created and rightly so.
The rubber sheets were approximately 3 to 4 mm thick at this stage and then went into the bonding section of the plant. This is where the strength is given to the ball and layers of material are bonded to the rubber compound. This also gives something for the stitching to work with at the later stitching stage of ball manufacture. If stitching directly into the rubber compound without the added material, when the ball is inflated the seams would split easily as the stitching would cut through the rubber. The added material gives this the strength to hold.
When looking to buy a rugby ball you may have seen the description as stating this is a '2 Ply' ball or '3 Ply' or even '4 Ply' also known as Quad Core Technology or whatever marketing jargon they decide to call it. The term ply refers to the layers of polyester cloth material that are layered on top of each other and then applied to the rubber sheet previously made. These are glued together at high pressure in a heavy press machine with rollers and a liberal amount of glue. The ply of the ball gives the ball longevity and is often overlooked when purchasing the clubs rugby balls.
- 2 Ply is generally used on training balls
- 3 Ply is used on best quality training balls and most match balls
- 4 Ply or Quad Core is mainly used on Pro quality match balls and is thought of as the highest level available
If more layers are added the ball becomes too heavy and less reliable so that is why you would not see a ball being constructed with a '5 Ply' mix. The ply and rubber layers are then cut into manageable sheets approximately 40cm x 70cm.
The graphics on the ball are the most visual part of the ball which can often mean it sells well or not at all. Most of the rugby balls available today are made in Jalandhar, in the north Indian state of Punjab. There is a certain amount of brand snobbery within rugby clubs across the world and many pundits suggest the ball is of inferior quality, should the brand name GILBERT is missing. This is of course nonsense in my opinion but as Gilbert spends many millions on marketing this means their balls get the most exposure on TV, Internet and written press. The graphics are applied to a cellophane sheet with a rubber based ink. This sheet is applied to the rubber side of the bonded sheet produced earlier. The ink is rubber based as it then becomes part of the ball when heat in the next stage. This would not be the case if standard ink was use and applied on a transfer, a process which can be used to add club crests at a later date when the ball has been stitched.
There are many different types of grips which can be applied to the rubber side of these sheets and is selected by each brand during the design process. I had never considered how a grip became part of the ball before and was fascinated to see this stage of the ball development. There are various grips available and it is down to personal choice which you feel is best
- Standard Grip
- Dual Grip
- Tri-Angular Grip
- 3-D Grip
- Aerosensa Grip
- Max Grain Grip
The list is endless but the most common is the standard grip. Brands will claim their grip is best in all conditions or may specify a particular grip for a specific ball and weather. The grip configuration is designed and embedded onto a metal sheet. How this process works if as follows:
- The 1st layer has one flat metal sheet
- On top of this a layer of bonded material and rubber sheet is placed. Cloth side down
- The grip sheet is then added on top, with the grip side facing down onto the rubber surface, with the flat side of the metal sheet facing up
- This process is then repeated until the maximum amount of layers is created.
- At this point the block of layers are added to a machine which heats and presses at the same time.
A '2 Ply' ball needs to be baked for 5 minutes, a '3 Ply' ball is baked for 6 minutes and a '4 Ply' ball is baked for 7 minutes.
The sheets are removed from the 'oven', are allowed to cool and are ready for the next stage with the graphics and grip applied. This stage is the final process to be completed in this factory and is the cutting of the panels. A machinist layers the cooled sheets (one at a time) onto his press in front of him. When he is happy with the positioning of the sheet, he applies the press cutter which has a force in excess of 2 tonnes applied. The hole for the valve is also added by the cutter at this time. The waste material is removed and the 4 panels are stacked and wrapped with an elastic band to ensure they stay part of the same set.
The pack of 4 panels is now sent to the next stage and can be in a different factory altogether, although the majority are still manufactured in the 2 biggest plants, as previously mentioned. The quality of the bladder can have a major impact on the longevity of the ball and how it plays too. There are generally 2 choices of bladder available but, it can be hard to find which is used in your ball as manufacturers use marketing jargon to make their balls sound different from all other balls
- Latex Bladder - These are softer and have a natural feel which ensures the ball retains the shape for longer. They can allow air to permeate though the skin though and the ball will need re-inflating more often but the air lose is often offset by introducing 'Air-Loc' valve to the ball.
- Butyl Bladder -These are more durable and are often used on training balls and the lower end match balls as they retain their air for longer.
The positioning of the bladder outlet is determined at an earlier design stage and can be 'In-Panel' or 'In-Seam'. Training balls and many match balls have 'In-Panel' design and the best quality match balls have the 'In-Seam' design. How to find out which you ball has is quite easy:
- In Panel - The valve to the bladder will be positioned in the centre of a panel.
- In Seam - The valve to the bladder is positioned within the seam/stitching of the ball. Players say the best balls to play with in matches are 'In-Seam' as they have a better flight path and are more stable when kicked.
The bladder valve is carefully positioned and glued in place, then allowed to dry for at least an hour
This is the stage where the shape of ball is formed. The stitching can be applied by a highly trained machinist or by an even higher trained and incredibly patient hand seamstress. Unlike football the majority of rugby balls are hand stitched as the shape doesn't allow machine to be used in this process. If a machine is used at all, the final stitches are still applied by hand, which can then allow the manufacturer to claim they are hand stitched. The stitching used is water resistant, UV stable and is very durable
Inflating and Testing
Small samples of training balls are taken to be fully inflated and tested to ensure they retain the air for a given period. They can be kicked too with a machine to give a realistic test, without the need to take the balls outside onto a muddy field. The higher quality match balls have a higher sample of balls taken for testing and most are pre-kicked by machine, to get the ball ready for play. The ball pressure is specified by the manufacturer and is written around or close to the valve of the ball. This can differ greatly between manufacturers and also between match and training balls, so should always be adhered to. When inflating you rugby ball take care and add a small dot of glycerine into the opening of the valve. When the needle is inserted this takes the lubricant down into the valve making damage to the valve or bladder less likely. Never use water or saliva as these do not lubricate the valve and with saliva can add debris to the valve, allowing air to escape. We had 2 customers that claimed their rugby balls were faulty so, we got them back for inspection. One had what looked like remnants from someone's lunch within the valve and when we suggested the needle was lubricated with saliva whilst the user was eating a bag of crisps, the guy was very embarrassed; the other ball had been lubricated with Vaseline. So, the valve had so much Vaseline within it, they couldn't get a seal on the ball, allowing air to escape. Lesson learned by both to use glycerine in future.
Answer to the Question
This doesn't answer the question though, 'Is a Pro ball worth 10 times more than a training ball?'
The use of 4 ply makes them higher quality as does the use of the best bladders. The graphics and rubber compounds tend to cost the same though. The stitching costs are a fraction higher on pro quality balls as the highest paid seamstresses are employed and more time is taken on each ball. The stitcher will often only finish 12 pro quality balls a day, so the costs are definitely higher. The pro balls are also used in high profile competitions are often given for free as part of the marketing and sponsorship package; this can add huge sums to the cost of the ball for the end user. In my opinion the £100+ balls are overpriced and are not worth that much as you can get a similar quality ball for much less as it won’t have the marketing spend associated with the ball.