When I first started playing Rugby Union is the early 1990s (I started young!), even at the highest levels of the game there were a few positions where even basic ball handling skills were considered something of an optional extra. Those days are now very much a relic of the amateur era though. Today, whichever code you play, whatever position, ball handling skills are essential for all players to master. A rugby ball is clearly a crucial item to make this improvement, but what factors should you be looking for when choosing a rugby ball?
The first place to start your search is to narrow down by size. If a rugby ball is too big or too small, perfecting your technique in all aspects of ball handling and especially passing will become more difficult. In organised games, you will find three different sizes used, which are illustrated in the table below.
Whilst the rules regarding ball sizing only apply to matches and not training, it is nevertheless always a good idea to train with the same size balls as you will use during matches for maximum benefit. Therefore if you buying a ball for an adult, choose a size 5, and if buying a ball for a child from the age of 6 upwards, you can base your decision on the table above.
If your child is younger than 6 years old, you will also find a range of size 1 rugby balls available. At times sold as souvenir balls, these balls will allow young children to enjoy a first taste of rugby!
The earliest rugby balls were made out of a pig's bladder and four panels of leather stitched together to form the outer casing. In modern times the pig's bladder has replaced with a rubber inner tube, and the leather panels by synthetic rubber materials, but the iconic oval shape has remained.
One of the main problems with leather is that it absorbs moisture. Therefore in wet conditions, this moisture increased the weight of the ball and changed its performance dynamics. Therefore synthetic materials have superseded leather, as the waterproofing these materials offer prevent the ball absorbing moisture during the game, and therefore the ball behaves more consistently across different weather conditions. Balls often have small pimples on the surface too, aiding grip. Better grip improves all aspects of ball handling, and so the overall quality of the game will also improve as a result.
You will also find 100% foam rugby balls, particularly in size 1 and size 3. These balls have no inner tube, and so do not need to be inflated. The fact that foam is soft and flexible also means that injuring fingers or other parts of the body when attempting to catch the ball is less likely, making the balls more suitable for children learning to catch a rugby ball. However, the weight, weight distribution and composition of the ball will mean that the ball will offer different flight dynamics to synthetic or leather balls, and therefore will be less suitable for regular players.
If you are practicing for a match, the best advice is to use the same balls, or at least very similar balls, to the ones that you will use during the match. However, an alternative training ball is a weighted rugby ball. These balls are very similar to standard rugby balls in terms of size, shape and feel, but is more than twice as heavy as a standard match ball, at around 1kg rather than 410-460g. The extra weight makes the ball more difficult to pass over a longer distance, so is useful for players looking to improve their wrist strength and their long passing.
There are also specifically designed beach rugby balls available. These balls are seamless, helping to make sure that the ball is air-tight and water-tight. Thus, the ball is more suited for use on the beach, as you do not have to worry about sand particles getting inside the ball or water if the ball ends up in the sea.
By considering the factors above, you will be able to identify a rugby ball which will suit either your own needs or your child's, helping you to choose a ball which will be the right size and offer the right characteristics to help develop your ball handling skills.
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