The life of a rugby league ball: from a rubber tree in India to Super League

The life of a rugby league ball: from a rubber tree in India to Super League

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ow does a rugby league ball end up getting from the rubber trees of India to a Super League pitch in England? And how does a company that produces rugby balls react when there is no rugby for five months? The return of Super League last week meant millions more eyes on the ball. For Steeden, a company that started making sports equipment in Queensland back in 1958, it meant a return to business somewhere near normal, as Dan Drew, director of Steeden Sports Europe, explains.

How does a company that produces rugby balls cope when there are no professional games for five months? “We did a lot of sales online in the first six to eight weeks of lockdown because people were allowed in their gardens and they wanted a ball to throw around. It was the same with the professional rugby players. A lot of them got in touch to order equipment so they could keep training on their own. My concern moving forward is how club retail will perform. Most club shops are not fully open yet and as balls are seen as an impulsive purchase on match days, so with no crowds this could be a challenge.”

What are rugby balls made of these days? “All of our balls are made from a rubber/polyester compound. The rubber comes from all over India and other Asian countries. Match balls are more concentrated towards a rubber mix than training balls, which have more polyester substitute. Our balls are all manufactured in India. Within our factory network, we are proud to hold the highest accreditation possible with no child labour, above minimum wage etc – all audited and certificated.”

Talk us through the production process: from a rubber tree to Headingley. “The artwork is digitally pressed on to flat sheets of the rubber compound panels, which are then left to dry and cure. The pinal pad – the pimples – are embossed on to the fabric before the four panels are drawn out and laser cut. The quarters are sewn together by hand using a cotton-nylon mix. Once complete, the balls go through quality check where they all get air-tested – blown up and then deflated again – to check the PSI levels are correct. Balls can take anything up to four to eight weeks from start to finish.”

Do Super League clubs use new balls for every game? “No, but they get switched every two or three games and the used ones go into the training regime. Nothing is wasted. Each club gets anything between 100 and 150 balls, depending what they order. They are all the Symmetry match ball so they train with the same ball they play matches with.”

Do they swap balls when the pimples flatten? “The pimples do wear out over time, but this does not actually mean that the ball will be less grippy as the rubber concentration is what gives the rugby ball its true grip. They do help a bit in the wet as they provide grooves for the water to lie in. Players just get used to the feel of the pimples.”

So what’s the difference between a £15 supporters ball and the £50 NRL or Super League ball? “It’s down to the rubber compound: the higher the percentage of rubber, the more expensive the ball. The cheaper ones have more polyester mixed in, but that makes them more robust. So the supporter balls actually last longer. As we all know, rubber rubs out, so the elite balls do wear out too, but they give an incredible grip: there’s a softer, chalky feel with the rubber.”

What’s the difference between a Steeden rugby league ball, those of other brands and rugby union balls? “Our shape is ever so slightly different. A rugby union ball is fatter which suits a more kicking game. Rugby league is fast and furious so they want a thinner ball that travels through the air faster. Our balls travel through the air truer too, so they are great for kicking at goal as the compound is better – there are three or four layers, so there’s extra grip. Steeden are known as being the player choice when it comes to balls.”

Is there any difference between white and coloured balls, like in cricket? “They all start white and then, for coloured balls, the ink is printed on and absorbed into the rubber. The white balls are the purest though and have the best grip because the more ink is on the surface, the less rubber there is on the surface. That’s maybe why rugby balls have stayed mainly white while footballs have changed to all sorts of colours.”

What’s this we hear about GPS trackers being put inside balls? “It’s exciting. I can’t give you much detail yet, but we’re hoping we can facilitate live data during the games so you can monitor the ball. It’s all pretty radical, very interesting technology. We’ll be trailing it in the NRL and Super League next season. It’s data that players and teams have never had access to before, so it will be interesting to see what they do with it and if it affects performance.”

Finally, can you tell us about the NHS balls you’ve produced? “Like many people we just had an idea to say thank you to the NHS and designed a ball with their blue logo and the rainbow stripes, with the profits donated to the NHS. Sales have gone really well. They are being packed up in our warehouse as we speak, ready to go out. It’s a nice initiative. We’ve yet to do the final calculation but the donations will be made to three NHS trusts in the rugby league heartlands.”

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