Here’s a picture of two rugby balls. The ball on the left is an antique from the 1930s. I bought the ball on the right a few years ago.
Spot the difference? The red arrow is a clue: the older rugby ball has laces.
There are also a few other differences that are key to understanding that rugby balls used to have laces but not anymore.
Do Rugby Balls Have Laces?
Historically, leather rugby balls had laces to tie up the hole in which a bladder was inserted.
Rugby balls switched to plastic in the early eighties. Modern synthetic rugby balls do not have laces.
There was an overlapping period when some competitions would use a leather ball in fine weather. If the match day was forecasted for rain, a plastic ball would be used instead.
The reason is that leather balls absorb water, and become very heavy with persistent rain. A sodden ball is difficult to kick with any length or accuracy. Passing and catching a wet leather ball is prone to fumbling.
The weight of a plastic ball is unaffected by rain. Of course, a wet slick plastic ball has its own challenges. Ironically, the laces on a leather ball helped with grip!
When Did Rugby Balls Stop Having Laces?
It’s difficult to pinpoint when was the last international match was played with a rugby ball with laces. I spent a bit of time peering at old match footage from the seventies and eighties. But grainy footage of a mud-covered ball wasn’t helpful.
I did find a photograph from a 1971 test match between England and Scotland. A player was seated and holding one of the match balls. You have to squint a bit, but trust me – this 1971 rugby ball has laces.
Skip forward to 1987 and the first Rugby World Cup. The official match ball was made by Mitre, and it was a plastic ball without laces. Here’s an old photo of one of the official balls:
I can’t be definitive to a specific year but I can answer the question more generally:
Rugby balls generally stopped having laces in the early 1980s. The first Rugby World Cup in 1987 was played with a ball without laces.
Is It Possible To Get A Rugby Ball With Laces?
Old leather rugby balls with laces are quite popular on sporting memorabilia sites. You’ll see listings on eBay. If you go with a memorabilia site or antique shop, you may also get your purchase accompanied by a display stand.
You can also get “vintage style” leather rugby balls that are made for display purposes. In other words, these aren’t manufactured to be played with! But they could make a nice gift for an older relative who played schools rugby back in the day.
Here’s a nice example on Amazon.
Why Do People Assume That Rugby Balls Have Laces?
I used to be surprised when people new to rugby assumed that the ball would have laces. And then I realized that the assumption was probably due to familiarity with American Football.
The ball in American Football still has laces, although this is no longer needed to contain a bladder. The laces in American Football allow the quarterback to put a lot of spiral on the ball for a long and accurate pass.
How To Get Replacement Laces
Have you found an old leather rugby ball in the attic that is missing its laces? I’ve scoured through online stores of the major ball manufacturers. But I can’t find a sales page for individual laces.
However, I do have an option for you that is a little more expensive. Gilbert sells a replacement bladder that comes with a lace!
How To Replace A Lace
Replacing laces is a little tricky. So, I’d only advise replacing laces if the original lace has completely perished.
And before you take action, I suggest that you check if that battered old leather ball is actually worth something! Check on eBay for vintage leather rugby balls with the same brand name.
Unlacing and lacing up a rugby ball is probably best explained with a video walkthrough. There’s a guy on youtube with several videos where he unlaces and laces up different kinds of NFL footballs. I’ve never had to lace up a rugby ball. But if I was about to do so, I’d watch all his videos for inspiration.