Getting a grip on rugby shirt evolution

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  • By Rob Carey
Rugby jerseys have a tougher job than most

Few sports have changed as dramatically and so quickly in such a short time as rugby union. Those changes have taken various forms; running alongside and mirroring those changes has been the subsequent changes in the players’ attire. Unlike other sports, where such changes have been driven mainly by fashion, those in rugby reflect more the changing nature of the sport. They also reflect the unique challenges that the sport has on the jerseys.

When talking about jerseys and their history, most of the focus is usually around football. However, the evolution of rugby tops is even more fascinating than jerseys sported by rugby’s distant cousin. The colours of national jerseys in rugby union are often influenced by a country’s heritage. Take Italy, for example. The Italians have long worn blue jerseys in honour of the House of Savoy, under whom Italy was unified in the mid 19th century. During the ‘Challenge of Barletta’, the Italian knights famously fought off an attack from the French and were wearing blue scarfs during their valiant defence – hence the Azzurro has remained part of Italian jersey culture. The decision to wear blue certainly isn’t a superstitious one. Historically, the Azzurri have been playing competitive rugby since 1929, although the nation only really shot to prominence at the turn of the Millennium when they were invited to become part of the new Six Nations. For those who have followed the latest results and statistics, they have seen that the team have regularly been on the receiving end of some heavy defeats, that is the reason some of the main rugby union bookmakers consider them rank outsiders for the Six Nations and events like the recent World Cup in Japan.

Early Days

When men first got together with their odd shaped balls in the middle years of the 19th century, their chosen garb was a white button down shirt, matching white trousers, walking boots and, of course, a bow tie. What it made up for in sartorial elegance, it lacked in practicality, and soon heavy woollen sweaters were adopted. Though an improvement, they were still far from ideal on a sports field, and it was not long before the woollen knitted tops evolved into heavy cotton ones.

The Welsh rugby team in 1895, the early days of the traditional rugby jersey

Over the next few decades, the design changed little, save for the addition of collars and the adoption of rubber buttons, which had the dual advantage of being harder to grab hold of and they would not scrape the face of opposing players. The classic rugby shirt was born.

That long-sleeved, collared, heavy cotton look prevailed for most of the history of the sport and still does today on the high street, where the rugby top is a fashion staple. Come the early 1990s, however, the sport was to change forever, and with it, the jerseys the players wore.

The Professional Era

In 1995, professionalism came to rugby union and it was to have a dramatic effect on the sport – at the highest level at least. Over the subsequent decades, rugby players – especially the elite ones – became proper athletes in appearance, attitude, physique and performance. It is no surprise then, that the clothing they wore followed suit.

The traditional rugby top had several disadvantages. First of all it was heavy. When you are running for eighty plus minutes carrying a ball and several opposing players, every gram starts to count. In wet weather the weight of the shirt could increase by as much as 3kg. On the other side of the coin, in warm weather they were incredibly hot to wear. The baggy nature of the jersey also made them a large target for opposition players, and an easy one for grasping hands to hold onto.

The shirts underwent gradual a transformation over the first few years of professionalism, with major sports manufacturers such as Nike and Asics coming to the party. The first major change was seen when the kits for the 2003 World Cup were unveiled. Made from a combination of cotton and polyester, the shirts clung tightly to the players’ bodies, making them difficult to grab onto and keep hold of. Rubberised gripper prints on the shoulders helped players get a grip of fellow team mates in the scrum, while ones on the side helped players to carry the ball in wet conditions.

A comparison of the France kits from 1999 (left) and 2007 (right)

Since then, rugby jerseys have evolved even further – becoming less like something the everyday man would wear in the street and more a piece of kit that is designed purely to give the player wearing it every advantage possible.

The colours of the jerseys are still very much as they were back at the beginning of the sport though, with England and New Zealand playing in their iconic all-white and all-black kits respectively. It is also the only sport where the United Kingdom and Ireland are represented by one team –  the Lions, and they too have a unique and distinctive jersey, whose colour has stood the test of time and is proudly worn by supporters of all the nations represented.

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