Rugby shorts were traditionally made out of 100% cotton. The cotton canvas material was durable, but very rigid. From a production standpoint, it allowed for easy double-stitching for reliable seam work and, let’s face it, were basically the only option available. While still available and loved by purists, the performance rugby short (aka stretchy rugby short) has become the first option for most club rugby players and are in fact ubiquitous amongst top professional clubs around the world.
When you compare the two it is not hard to understand why.
Modern performance rugby shorts are typically made from 100% polyester (rugby league shorts previously used nylon as opposed to cotton but have also switched to polyester). Polyester fabrics have become much better over the years in terms of consistency and production understanding and now stand up to the rigors of rugby better than their cotton predecessors.
In addition to increased durability, performance rugby shorts are also significantly more comfortable for most wearers and lighter weight. The polyester material allows for a lighter short that provides moisture management to help wick sweat away from the waist and legs for an optimal playing condition in varying weather. Polyester also allows for a better range of motion either through allowing stretch in the fabric or stretch zones that provide for a more comfortable running motion. And for the players with bigger thighs this gives some added breathing room around the upper legs.
You typically see two means of constructing a performance rugby short. The first and most straightforward was is to simply build the short out of a stretchier polyester fabric much like a gym short. This provides excellent freedom of movement and comfort.
The second method some brands use, such as these BLK T2 shorts, utilize a rigid polyester material for the body of the short that is extremely durable and lightweight. To counter this rigidity, flex panels and crotch gussets of lycra or other super flexible materials are utilized to give the garment an increased range of motion.
An often overlooked aspect of durability is the aesthetics and color of the materials over time. While cotton, particularly colors, tend to fade and wear relatively quickly, polyester holds a “true” color significantly longer and does not fray as readily as cotton.
The one possible downside to performance shorts is that they make lineout lifting more difficult for teams that utilize the shorts primarily to lift. If both lifters are using the shorts to hoist the jumper, the stretchiness of the material can prevent maximum height from being achieved. This is not an issue with modern techniques that rely on “lifting on the legs” through lifting blocks for the front lifter and the back lifter cupping under the glutes or back of hamstrings as opposed to the shorts.
Following from the above, old school rugby players are sometimes aghast to find that new performance rugby shorts almost never have pockets. Pockets were admittedly great for holding on to a mouthpiece and helped give another good grabbing spot for some scrummaging technique. With the advent of new, better scrum binding techniques and special mouthguard pockets in the shorts the need for pockets and the excess material and finger holds for tacklers that came with them went away.
World Rugby Shop has the best selection of both performance rugby shorts and cotton rugby shorts.