Rugby World Cup 2023: “We couldn’t imagine anything better!” The Gilbert Balloon is celebrating its 200th anniversary and has never been so modern

the essential
From shoemaker William Gilbert’s small workshop in Rugby, where the first balloons appeared in 1823, to the thriving business that floods the oval planet with its now indispensable balloons, immersed in the heart of an oval world with Laurent Gaya, the director of Gilbert France.

A dashing bicentennial

We are in Rugby College in 1823 and according to local legend, in the middle of a football match, William Webb Ellis grabbed the ball in his hands to carry it across the pitch. Rugby was born and William Gilbert, a shoemaker whose workshop was opposite the school, supplied the school children with round leather balls. A few years later, the ball took on an oval shape for better grip, always at the initiative of the visionary William Gilbert. “Celebrating the brand’s 200th anniversary at the same time as rugby’s anniversary in the middle of the World Cup, we couldn’t imagine doing it better,” said Laurent Gaya, Director of Gilbert France. “This is an exceptional situation for our brand.”

Laurent Gaya, director of Gilbert France.

Laurent Gaya, director of Gilbert France.

On all pitches, at all competitions, everywhere in the world

From the stadiums of the Regional Championship of Occitanie to those of the NPC Championship of the New Zealand Provinces, from the stadiums of the Top 14 to those of the Currie Cup in South Africa, to the summits of the VI Nations Tournament or the Coupe du Worldwide, there is Gilbert everywhere -balloons. All clubs and major nations have their own model. “We have a presence in professional and semi-professional rugby that is around 98%,” emphasizes Laurent Gaya, without forgetting amateur rugby, which follows the movement and depends on the quality of English balls and their value for money. Relationship is fascinating. In France, Gilbert sells between 400,000 and 500,000 balloons a year, equivalent to more than a million units worldwide.
In this raid, only the All Blacks with an Adidas ball stand out. “At the moment…” breathes Laurent Gaya. But maybe not for long…

Know-how and innovation, the key to success

Having gained unanimous support in the rugby world since the early 1990s, the Gilbert company demonstrated its strengths. “I think there are several parameters for our success,” says Laurent Gaya. “We have a know-how that has never been copied or imitated. Then we invest a lot, be it in research or innovation. And then we can rely on a company where employees are enthusiastic everywhere, in all departments, from research to sales, from marketing to manufacturing.”

Iconic brand – connoisseurs have not forgotten the famous Gilbert “Match” in brown leather with its laces from the 70s and 80s – the company from Robertsbridge (Sussex) was able to prevail against the competition from “the big two”, as Laurent Gaya mentions Nike and Adidas. “They don’t necessarily care about rugby, it’s still a ‘regional’ sport on a global scale. They prefer to focus on sports with high density,” explains the director of Gilbert France, who specifies: “Please note that cricket or field.” Ice hockey for example, there are three times as many players in the world. And countries with such large populations as India, China or Pakistan do not have a rugby culture.” Hence the rugby ball niche that the English company has made its home.

The scorers, the best testers

“They are our shadow ambassadors,” declares Laurent Gaya without hesitation about the scorers who use the English brand’s balls and express their opinions and criticism. “They are very demanding and the new generation is even more so.” And Laurent Gaya tells us about the tests he carried out with Johny Wilkinson in Toulon before the 2015 World Cup. “We brought him the balls that were to be used during the World Cup. He took the balls and hit for two hours.” from 22 m, from the same place, chaining shots, requiring a little more or less pressure. I have never seen such demand and precision. But he was one of the best scorers in history, wasn’t he?”

On the French side, Antoine Dupont’s opinion counts. “He is a player who touches the ball with his hands and feet and who can also score. He is always very fair in his comments, he never has unfounded criticism. Antoine has real qualitative expertise.”

The connected ball: lots of data for top performance

In an age of data and statistics in abundance, Gilbert is developing the connected ball. “We deliver the ball into which we insert a chip from the company SAGE, which develops the technology. It is the result of eight years of research,” explains Laurent Gaya. Tested at the last U20 World Cup in South Africa, this ball offers a variety of data. “They can be used in many areas. For referees who can know whether a ball is being played forward; for television, which can provide statistics on the speed of a pass, the length or height of a kick, etc. It will be World Rugby deciding whether or not to validate this technology and its use.

And Laurent Gaya made it clear: “The French team is already using it in training. For example, a scrum-half does not have the same length or passing speed depending on whether he plays on the right or left side. So this technology allows to adjust the players’ positions according to the options.” And finally: “For high performance, this technology is exceptional, the effect is extremely positive.” It remains up to the highest authorities in world rugby to give the green light .

One World Cup, 1600 balls!

It is called “Innovo RWC 2023”, is the official ball of the World Cup, costs 200 euros and consists of 70% rubber of natural origin and 30% synthetic material. It is innovative by offering a double valve for better balance and a four-piece bladder. “The ball is compressed enormously when the strikers hit it, but this bubble ensures that the ball immediately returns to its original appearance. The elasticity of the ball allows the energy of the foot impact to be well distributed,” explains the director of Gilbert France, who admits that “the feedback during this World Cup is good. We take the stats of the top scorers and if their percentages are good, that means the ball is moving well. For us, the best scorers are our barometer.” For your information: Gilbert will provide teams and organizers with a total of 1,600 balls for training and games throughout the competition.

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