Next match: v 1st Jan k/o1.00am

History of Gilbert - Rugby Excellence Since 1823

There is a plaque outside Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, bearing the following inscription:
"This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of Football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game AD 1823"

One important detail that the inscription fails to mention is that the ball in question was a GILBERT.

The name GILBERT is thus identifiable with the game of Rugby Football since its inception and since those early days the GILBERT ball has been used by almost every rugby playing nation in the world, and at all levels of the game.

William Gilbert (1799-1877) had a boot and shoemakers shop in the high street next to Rugby School and started making balls for the school out of hand stitched, four-panel, leather casings and real pigs’ bladders. It is the shape of the pig's bladder that is reputed to have given the rugby ball its distinctive oval shape although balls of those days were more plum shaped than oval. The balls varied in size in the beginning depending upon how large the pig's bladder was and 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 pig's bladder would be blown up while still in its very smelly 'green state', solely by lungpower, down the stem of a clay pipe which was inserted into the opening of the bladder. When William died his nephew James succeeded him.

James Gilbert (1831-1906) was reputed to be \"…a wonder of lung strength who blew even the big match balls up tight\". He was responsible for the leather stand made for the London Exhibition in 1851. In 1906 on the death of James, his son James John Gilbert (1856-1917) 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 and upheld the company\'s 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.

Rugby Excellence Since 1823 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. 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 passed through the control of 3 different owners through the 1980s and 1990s, during which time the brand embraced and perfected the use of new synthetic technologies in its new Barbarian match ball. The brand also expanded into wider areas of rugby equipment, footwear, clothing and protection, thus becoming a “one-stop-shop” capable of responding to 100% of a player’s or club’s rugby needs.

The come back was completed and GILBERT once again assumed its position of market leader in South Africa in 1995, when it was adopted as the Official Ball of the Rugby World Cup, a feat that was repeated in 1999.

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 now operating a sports shop.

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. af

Not content to rest on its laurels, the brand had already commenced the development of the next generation of balls. The Xact technology was radically enhanced for the 2005 World Cup Sevens in Hong Kong where a patented star-shaped grip pattern – the first ever departure from round pimples – delivered outstanding handling performance in play.

GILBERT have developed a new ball for each Rugby World Cup since 1995 and the 2007 edition, to be held in France, will once more be played using the latest in high-performance ball technology. Extensive research involving some of the world’s top players was used to support theoretical data produced by Computational Fluid Dynamic analysis and high-speed video analysis. 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. Combining this high-grade rubber surface technology with a reaction laminate construction, a figure of eight bladder and GILBERT’s patented Trueflight ™ valve, the brand’s engineers have once more pushed back the boundaries of match ball development.

Under Grays stewardship, GILBERT’s technical heritage will continue to see them making advances in ball manufacturing as well as all other areas of rugby equipment, and the modern GILBERT will continue to maintain the high standards set by James Gilbert over 180 years ago, ensuring that every product to leave their factories is worthy of the big man’s stamp.

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