The Rugby World Cup’s biggest problem? Slippery balls

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The late summer heatwave in France has dialled up the humidity and made the official Gilbert match ball extremely difficult to handle in some matches during the opening rounds of the Rugby World Cup, with players explaining that the ball has at times resembled “a bar of soap”.

Late-night kick-offs have been cited as a factor, with the humidity increasing during the evenings and therefore increasing the amount of sweat and dew on the ball, particularly in the south of France.

George Ford, the England five-eighth, acknowledged after his side’s win over Japan in Nice that sweaty conditions had made maintaining possession with ball in hand a trickier task.

“You’ve got to understand how difficult it is out there,” Ford said. “It may not look it from the stands or on TV, but it’s actually more difficult than if it was throwing it [rain] down – because of the grease and the sweat on the ball.”

But after moist conditions challenged England in first Marseille and then Nice, their remaining two matches in the pool stages are set to be played on France’s north coast in Lille, closer to their Le Touquet training base and in cooler, drier climes.

“Maybe it will make a huge difference,” Ford added. “We don’t know yet but for the first two games, it’s been like a bar of soap, that ball, at times.”

England playmaker George Ford gets a kick away under pressure.Credit: Getty

There have been more handling errors on average so far at the Stade de Nice, 22.5 per match, where England played on Sunday night than at any other ground. Stade de Marseille, the scene for England’s gritty victory over Argentina, has produced 19.5 handling errors per match, with Argentina largely responsible for that number following 16 in that game.

One World Cup assistant coach said the humidity had meant the balls were “travelling well in the air off the boot” but that they were “harder to handle” during the 9pm kick-offs, citing the effects of both sweat and dew on the ball.

Both of England’s matches so far have been in that late slot, when the humidity has often risen to a daily high to make conditions that little bit harder for players under the lights. Their next two matches against Chile and Samoa kick off at 5.45pm local time.

Jonny Wilkinson, the former England five-eighth, who spent several years playing in France with Toulon, addressed the problems posed by playing that late during ITV’s half-time coverage of the game against Japan. Wilkinson compared the England-Japan fixture to Fiji’s win over Australia earlier in the day in Saint-Etienne, where there were notably fewer unforced handling errors and knock-ons largely stemmed from physical tackles, such as Eroni Mawi’s hit on young Wallabies No.10 Carter Gordon.

“It’s a night-time game, whereas the Fiji-Australia game was a lot drier,” Wilkinson said. “I’ve been in those conditions in France, I know what it’s like kicking off at 9 o’clock at night compared to in the afternoon.”

Two assistant coaches said the actual grip on the balls is fine, with any issues only blamed on the conditions. Teams get their hands on match-day balls for the first time during the captain’s run at the stadium the day before when going through their final training session. This is the first time the balls are “kicked in”, meaning the balls are close to brand new in terms of their level of grip by the time kick-off arrives the following day.

The average temperature and humidity levels across France are also expected to drop next weekend compared with the last few days, potentially making life easier for teams to avoid handling errors during evening matches including Ireland’s game against South Africa at the Stade de France in Paris, plus Australia’s must-win meeting with Wales in Lyon.

Telegraph, London

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