Getting a grip on rugby shirt evolution
- 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.
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.
1 thought on “Getting a grip on rugby shirt evolution”
I like the look of the old shirts. I can see that with professionalism, the old cotton shirts aren’t going to return, but in this year’s Six Nation’s, 2021, Scotland have a traditional look. I played in and still use the old fashioned shirt as a ref. There are heavy weight ones and lighter weight ones, something not said in the article. I got an old Bath jersey, Bukta brand, from the 70’s, and it’s quite light weight compared to the Barbarian brand of shirt that is made in Canada. I played in that Barbarian shirt a few years, and on a warm day they did get heavy with sweat, but usually the teams I played with got Canterbury jerseys, and they were of a comfortable weight;I only used Barbarian as a referee if the temperature is below 55F. I’m in Northern California, so a cloudy day in December and January, there can be chilly days in the low 50’s and upper 40’s, and I’ve reffed in those conditions, rain cloud, or sun. If it’s warmer, then I have medium weight, but for weather in the 70’s, the Uneek brand of shirt from the UK comes in handy. It’s very,very light weight, and cheap too. Anyway, I do not see, as a referee, why I should use a polyester shirt, and with short sleeves, so if it is cool or chlly, I’d have to wear sleeves under them. In fact, I wonder why those polyester tight fitting shirts aren’t made with long sleeves? Playing on a hard surface, one’s elbows can get chewed up. If it’s cold, I want my sleeves covered, as a good part of my legs aren’t! I played on the wing or fullback, and on those muddy ten man rugby days, standing around a good part of the game, I did not want to get cold! Reffing a women’s match in rain and muddy conditions, there are going to be a lot of knock ons, and therefore play stoppages, and again, standing around as a scrum forms, I do not want to get cold.
Anyway, these tight-fitting shirts do mean that tacklers have to get a good hold on a player, or come in for a very physical tackle. Then again, with the current “fashion” of not tucking in one’s shirt, I have seen some shirt tails get grabbed by the defender, so what’s with that? I would have my shirt tucked in if I were still playing. Even the shorts seem easier to pull down, as has happened to the player’s embarrassment in an Australian match a few years ago, and more famously perhaps, to that England woman in that match against the USA in Ireland in the Women’s World Cup in 2017. I have to wonder if the rise in head concussions in rugby union is correlated to the use of these tight-fitting shirts, because with the older style, there were more tackles in which a defender could get a good hold on a shirt, and therefore less very physical body and head contact. Rugby tackles are supposed to be made with the defender getting his or her arms around the hips of the ball carrier, and then slide down to the knees to complete the tackle. The head was supposed to go behind, not in front, of the legs to avoid getting a knee in the head. Crash tackles are done more now than ever before, and with the result of more injuries, especially to the head, and ball carriers seem to drive right into tackles, instead of avoiding contact, which makes for a very boring game of multiple phases and phony rucks. Players are bigger and more physical in these modern times, especially in the professional ranks, not that there weren’t big players before, but there were less of them overall. Someone 6’4″ would not have been playing in the back line, for instance; that player would be in the second row or at number 8 in the old days. 6’3″ wings were around, like John Kerwin or David Duckham, but they were an exception rather than the rule. Now it’s quite common for back line players on international teams to be all over 6 feet in height, some wings 6’5″ even, and even the scrum halves are tall. The rarity now in international rugby is a player of 5’8″, and that was the height of famous Welsh backs Gerald Davies and Gareth Edwards, two of the top players at wing and scrumhalf the world has ever seen play.
So, if the new jerseys could at least look like the old ones, why not? I never saw anyone get tackled by the collar. Good on Scotland for wearing their traditional look, though polyester, jerseys. Now if they’d get rid of the blue stripes on the shorts! Finally, could rucking come back? Real rucking! Very simple: if a player gets stamped on, the player doing it gets red carded, just like the blow to head law in place now! And please, back lines, keep doing what I saw in the Scotland v Wales match in February: chip kick ahead, regather, and score. That should break up defensive lines!