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It’s all boules to me

It’s all boules to me

Ron Cousins discovers why the french are mad about pétanque and tries his hand at one of the nation’s favourite sports...

Playing petanque boules in Poitou-Charentes

Fired by visions of lazy, lavender-scented summer afternoons, the metallic clang of hollow steel boules competing with the seductive clink of Pastis glasses, I went in search of someone willing to introduce a Welshman to the typically French game of pétanque.

An estimated 17 million french people play this game every year, and the sport’s controlling body; the Fédération Française de Pétanque et de Jeu provençal, has half a million licensed members. Pétanque is actually the country's fourth largest sporting federation. Not bad for a sport derived from the ancient Greeks throwing stones! The Romans refined the Greek method by introducing a target the first jack or cochonnet - and their soldiers brought the game to Provence.

Ron petanque 1

The sport evolved over the years and was known as Longue. lt was a popular, but dangerous, way to while away the summer in southern France during 18th and early 19th centuries. The balls, or boules as they are known today, were made from boxwood sheathed in nails: but there were so many injuries that it was banned in public areas and could only be played at cafés and in private gardens. By the start of the 20th century the name had changed to Jeu Provençal. It was similar to today's version, except that players were allowed a run-up to throw the boule. The game became pétanque early in the 1900s at La Ciotat near Marseille where, in order to permit a disabled champion to carry on competing, the villagers changed the rules: each thrower had to stand with both feet on the ground inside a 50cm circle scratched on the earth. In the Provençal dialect it was said the player stood pieds tanques or feet together, which led to the new name.

Hunting for an introduction to pétanque, I was delighted when Jean-François Beaufort, President of the pétanque club of St Même-les-Carrières, invited me to join him and his members for their first concours of the season. Jean- François explained that the object is to throw the boule as close as possible to the cochonnet so that your ball is closer than your opponents' balls. With this in mind, I picked up a boule, took aim and lobbed it right alongside the little orange wooden jack that was my target. A crowd of members were watching my inauguration before the evening's competition started, and I thought I heard a gasp of admiration from them. But it quickly changed to suppressed chuckles as the boule then carried on to the end of the court and out of play.

Learning the Technique

Clearly, my technique was somewhat lacking, so Jean-François gave me some tips: he told me to hold the boule under my palm, fingers uppermost, and then to give a backhand throw so that it would arc up into the air and land without rolling on. The rules state that you can throw standing, bending or squatting; but both feet must remain firmly on the ground within the marked circle until each boule has touched down. When both players have thrown their three boules, the one with the boule closest to the cochonnet is the winner of the round. He scores a point for each boule closer to it than the nearest thrown by the other player: The round winner then draws a circle on the ground, throws the cochonnet into position down the court and play commences in the opposite direction. The first player to reach 13 points wins the match.

I was beginning to get the hang of things as my patient instructors explained how to study the terrain and gauge the slope on the playing surface to improve my performance. They let me into the secrets of ‘Pointe', where you try to drop as close to the cochonnet as possible, and ‘Tirer’, where you throw to knock an opponent's boule out of the way. Club member Christian Palaisse even assured me I could keep playing well into my dotage with the aid of the powerful magnet on a cord that allowed me to pick up the boule without bending my back.

My brief taste of pétanque made me realise why it's so popular with all ages of men, women and children. It can be played anywhere by rich and poor; no expensive equipment or special clothing is needed and there is great camaraderie among players. If you've never tried playing, give it a try. British people will find a warm welcome and it will certainly open up friendships in the community. But beware, it could become addictive.

Ron petanque 2

To round off my practice session, Jean-François let me hold the cup that was being contested that evening. As I held it above my head I found myself fantasising about really being a boules big-hitter. I'll need to practice a lot, but that part of the garden where my wife grows flowers looks the ideal size for my court. All that's worrying me now is what she's going to say when the lorry-load of gravel arrives.

WORDS & PHOTOS by Ron & Caroline Cousins

Top Photo: Shutterstock

Previously published in Living Poitou-Charentes magazine