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Adidas vs. Gilbert: What's the difference between the Super Rugby balls?

What makes a rugby ball a Super Rugby ball? It's probably not something you've ever thought about, but with the inclusion of the Adidas ball in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman [SRTT], it's a question we've strived to answer.

Since the launch of the Super Rugby competition in 1996 the Gilbert rugby ball has been the ball of choice for the tournament -- and many international clashes around the world -- but for the first time in Super Rugby history, two different balls are being used across the SRTT competition.

In Australia the tried-and-true and much-loved Gilbert ball continues to be passed, kicked and dotted down. But in New Zealand the Adidas ball - developed for New Zealand rugby and long used in All Blacks home Tests - is getting its first run in the cross-border tournament.

So how do the two balls differ, if at all? Surely they are reasonably similar, right?

According to Brumbies fly-half Noah Lolesio, who'd been playing with the Adidas ball throughout his side's three-week New Zealand tour, there's a different feel to the ball; it's lighter, travels further in the pass and is really nice to kick.

"I've noticed a bit of difference," Lolesio said. "The Adidas ball is a bit lighter, has a sweeter spot to kick with and later in the game a normal ball can be a bit sweaty and dewy and stuff, but the Adidas ball it doesn't really matter, it still feels grippy which allows you to pass a bit more.

"It's a little bit of difference, but not too much."

Less round than the usual Gilbert ball, the Adidas is slightly longer taking on a closer feel to a rugby league ball, it has a different grip pattern but can get picked up in the breeze a lot easier, making the Gilbert the ball of choice for passing on those windier days according to Melbourne Rebels centre Reece Hodge.

"There definitely are some differences," Hodge told ESPN. "I know some people have mentioned that they prefer kicking the Adidas ball but then prefer passing with the Gilbert. Personally, I should probably say I prefer the Gilbert with them being an Australian sponsor, so I'll give them a plug there, but they're both different.

"I reckon downwind the Adidas ball might go a little bit further, but into the wind it's probably a bit more problematic. I'll back the Gilbert there, I reckon.

"As a kid in Australia you grow up mostly playing with the Gilbert, so the Adidas is something new and something fresh. I don't want to get myself in trouble by giving the wrong answer here, but they're different and it's a different element to the game playing with different balls."

Preparing for the ball change ahead of their Trans-Tasman matches in New Zealand, Australia's Super Rugby sides have been training with the new Adidas balls. For those who have never played Test rugby, it is their first time using them.

That was certainly the case for Waratahs rookie Ben Donaldson before the Round 2 match against the Blues in Auckland, the fly-half echoing Hodge and Lolesio saying he preferred to kick the lighter weight Adidas, but otherwise noting few other differences to the Gilbert.

"It was probably a little bit lighter than what we're used to, a little bit thinner, smaller, but nothing massive," Donaldson told ESPN. "I did really like kicking with them, though. All the boys here said they are nice balls to kick with. They're a bit softer; the leather or something about them.

"There is a bit of a sweet spot when you kick them. I think because they're a bit lighter, they fly a bit further, so it looks like you're hitting them better."

Interestingly, the change in ball may play a role in kicking accuracy. RugbyPass has done the number crunching and they've discovered that All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett's accuracy drops when using an Adidas; in 2018 he recorded a kicking accuracy of 81 percent with a Gilbert, but just 54 percent with the Adidas.

Certainly the Adidas ball was at the centre of the most dramatic Test match of 2020.

In a cold, windy and wet Wellington for the opening game of the Bledisloe Cup last year, Hodge lined the Adidas ball up for potentially match-winning penalty. The Wallabies utility sent the ball flying towards the posts from 55 metres out, but much to his -- and every Wallabies fan's -- dismay, the ball went crashing into the right upright - a good three-quarters up, we should add.

While he's got his own reasons for why the ball didn't sail through the uprights, Hodge has jokingly added the ball to the list.

"I've said this before but I'm actually still blaming Scott Wisemantel," Hodge told ESPN. "He brought the tee out to me and halfway to the posts it was looking pretty good and he actually celebrated and that's when the ball ended up floating to the right and hitting the posts, so I'm still filthy at him for that. But maybe it was the Adidas' fault.

"I'll just have to be better."

Lolesio was in a similar position when playing against the Crusaders and Chiefs, with the fly-half missing a match-tying conversion after the bell in Christchurch. Like Hodge, he doesn't really blame the ball, perhaps more his determination to kick the air out of it.

"When I line up the Adidas ball I really just want to hit the crap out of it, but I've got to cool my jets a bit and just follow through and trust the process."

While both balls seem to have their subtle differences, and players may have their preferences, they appear to be here to stay. With the Bledisloe Cup games to come in August, at least the Aussies are getting in some extra practice.