TL;DR: Did oval balls shape the sports of Rugby and Gridiron football or did those sports shape the ball?

I couldn't find anywhere online a clear explanation of the reason why these balls are oval shaped.
You can find the explanation of the consequences of the shape, but the reason is nowhere to be found1

It's obvious that the shape favors carrying the ball with the hands for two reasons:

  • It easier to carry with one arm (compared to a round ball), leaving the other arm free to push adversaries away.
  • It's harder to dribble the ball by kicking it on the floor as in association football (soccer).

But I couldn't find any explanation about the original reason they had to shape it that way.
By looking at balls from almost all other sports out there, the spherical ball is by far the most common, so it seems that there should be a clear reason as to why a family of sports chose to use an odd-shaped ball.

Does anybody know the answer?

1 It's said that the shape is due to pig bladders being used, but if the sport evolved from using round balls to using oval balls, did the players just accept this fact that would change the sport so much?
2 The William Webb Ellis story is mostly considered a myth at this point, but it could be based on the fact that at some point a ball got deformed and players saw it favored a novel style of play that players at the Rugby school liked best, maybe?

  • 1
    Not sure if this is the actual reason, but it discourages tactical kicking (as the bounce would be random) and encourages running with the ball, tackling, passing, advancing as a team, which presumably is the kind of game they wanted, other rules being structured as such (e.g. you can only pass backwards, the offside rule, etc.)
    – komodosp
    Oct 17, 2023 at 21:25
  • 1
    1/2 "but it discourages tactical kicking (as the bounce would be random)": I think we can see it from the other side (I do). It encourages, in some specific situations, tactical kicking. Rugby is about gaining yards, occuppying the field, and you need sometimes to quickly move the ball forward. One way is to kick in the opposite corner, where #15 and #11/#14 can't have it all covered. The bounce can help the kicking team fastest element to run and jeopardize the defenders to properly control the ball. Same with the up-and-under (bomb).
    – OldPadawan
    Oct 18, 2023 at 6:40
  • 1
    2/2 These kicks and moves are fully tactical weapons, part of the wide range of tools players must have. The bouncing just makes it harder to play, but it's an English game, easy wouln't be fun :)
    – OldPadawan
    Oct 18, 2023 at 6:45

1 Answer 1


Did oval balls shape the sports of Rugby and Gridiron football or did those sports shape the ball?

About Rugby, I'd say the sport did shape the ball.

the original reason they had to shape it that way.

I think there are several reasons, not a single one.

At that time, football association and football Rugby shared many rules.

It was William Gilbert who

started making balls for the school out of hand stitched, four-panel, leather casings and pig bladders. These balls were bigger and rounder than today's balls, which made them easier to kick longer distances. 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.

One of the first practical reason would be that a smaller ball would not only be easier to hold while running, but the second one would be enhancing its ovalness to the point that it would also make it easier to toss the ball on your side, on the same line or behind it, with your hands.1

One historical reason would be to draw another line (after the rules) to completely split and separate the two sports. The second (and last) one is merely an opinion, but I find it so elegant and so English. When I look at the way the rugby ball bounces, I always think that the man who invented that did it with the same spirit and humor that the one who, according to the legend, created the Most Noble Order of the Garter.

1. My first Rugby coach, in the first lesson, gave us 2 things to learn: a) properly tackle/be tackled without hurting/being hurt (so that you don't fear it) b) toss the ball. For this, he gave us (round) handball balls (we were kids), and made us toss the ball to the player 2 yards behind and 10 yards right/left. Then, same exercice with an oval ball. Within 30 minutes, because of the twist of the hips/chest, we all had understood why the ball needed to be an oval :)

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