By Ray Ager
I went for the second time to La Marseillaise, France’s biggest petanque tournament with nearly 12,500 players this year. I actually took a last minute decision and went alone, hoping to find two others to make up a team. Having read in Pétanque Magazine that nobody would be turned away this year, I had a slight shock to read in Friday’s edition of the newspaper, La Marseillaise, that entries would close at midday – it was 1pm!
However, there’s a stand where players can meet others looking for a team and I was lucky to find one of the locals whose son had broken his wrist the day before and was desperate for a replacement. I was in!
Most of the action takes place in the fabulous Parc Borély, a little way out of the city centre and where the roads and paths are given a covering of gravel and turned into petanque terrains. As the event has become so big, many of the early games take place at other venues, mainly sports stadiums where all-weather football pitches are marked out into terrains.
Our first match was at one of the stadiums. Our opponents were nearly an hour late in arriving but eventually turned up. Phillipe Quantais and Phillipe Suchaud, both World Champions, were playing on a nearby terrain and there was quite a crowd of spectators watching their match.
Picture by Jean-Louis Guien of Boulistenaute.com
I was the team’s pointer and fortunately didn’t find it too difficult adapting to the terrain. It was a slightly ‘bouncy’ surface where you could either roll your boules or lob them, according to your abilities and style of play. Our opponents started well and were 6-0 ahead. Their shooter shot two great carreaux on the next end and I thought we were going to be in for a difficult game… However, we shot next and fortunately the jack moved back about 2m, in our favour. They pointed badly and we won 4 points on the end! We then played a longer game, 10m, their shooter missed every shot afterwards and we won 13-6. The opponents were none too happy, having thought they were heading for an easy win and had harsh words for their shooter who they blamed for them losing.
So, we were through into the second round, this time at a different stadium and on a tarmac pitch that had been covered with gravel. A very hard and fast surface that called for very delicately controlled rolling shots. A lot of teams shoot à la rafle – a rolling shot rather than a direct hit – on this sort of surface. We did and so did our opponents but we had the upper hand and were leading 11-5. At this point they decided on a change of tactics and switched shooters. Fortunately for them, unfortunately for us, it was a good choice. The game was much more even, they fought back well and we finally lost 13-12. A closely fought match that, this time, we thought we would win.
We had no harsh words but we were out of the tournament, which is a straight KO – no second chances! At the next terrain to us was Bartoli, one of the locals from the club Florian, Marseilles top club with nearly 600 members and one of the tournament favourites. He too had quite a crowd of press and spectators following his match.
Losing means you get to watch the World Champions and favourites play their matches. I watched Marco Foyot, 5 times winner and going for a 6th win which would equal the former record. He won the match I watched but eventually lost. I also saw one of Quintais’s other matches where he was 7-0 down and looking like going out. However, the locals have a Provençal expression, sèt à ges: 7 is considered an unlucky number and the expression means that he game will turn. This was proven correct in Quintais’s case. It was a long, hard, fight back which eventually succeeded in them winning 13-11.
Picture by Jean-Louis Guien of Boulistenaute.com
The big games get large crowds of passionate and appreciative fans. Direct hits are always applauded and a carreau will always get a huge show of appreciation. However, this was not the case for one of Quintais's shots. A perfect carreau from the World Shooting Champion but greeted with deadly silence. Why? Because he’d shot á la rafle – a rolling shot – and the locals don’t like it. The fact that the World Champion considered it the most effective shot to use was of no importance to the fanatical fans!
The semi-finals and finals are held on a purpose built terrain on the nearby Prado Beach with grandstand seating for spectators. The first semi-final was with Passo – Michael Swartz – a great favourite with the crowd and a phenomenal shooter. Passo’s team had a reasonably easy 13-7 win and it wasn’t the most exciting match to see. It actually ended with the opponents playing one boule approx. 50cm in front of the jack, Passo’s team beating it with a close boule just to the left of the jack which the opponents decided to shoot, only to miss 4 times (sic) and then concede without playing their final boule…
Quintais’s semi-final on the other hand was against the last remaining Marseille team, who naturally had great local support. It was a superb, closely fought match which Quintais only narrowly won 13-10 – it could have gone either way.
The final, Quintais vs. Passo, was actually postponed from Thursday evening because of high winds – the dreaded Mistral and took place on Friday morning instead. Another superb match, where Quintais really had the upper hand with Suchaud as shooter backed up by himself as milieu. With the score at 11-10 to Quintais, there was quite a heated tactical dispute between Passo and one of his team members about how to play their last boule.
Quintais’s team already had 3 points “on the carpet”, enough to win but Passo’s team had a boule to play, as did Quintais. The 3 boules were all behind the jack. Passo wanted the last boule played devant de boule, i.e. resting on the nearest Quintais boule. A defensive shot that would, if played well so that it couldn’t be shot, would probably keep Quintais to just 1 point, assuming he scored with his remaining boule. His teammate, however, wanted to play to move the jack back to where they had other boules. A more difficult shot but one that could give them points, if successful. There was much heated discussion – by the way, little regard is given to the “one minute to play” rule, it often seems more like 5 minutes as teams will walk to the jack, discuss what to do, walk to the circle and see how it looks from there, walk back to the jack to check the terrain and usually prepare la donnée, the landing spot – also against the rules but everybody does it and nobody, players or umpires, complain, finally back to the circle to play the shot.
The player with the boule decided he was going for the more difficult shot to move the jack. He was somewhat unlucky. He played well and succeeded in hitting it, only for it to hit one of Quintais’s boules and rebound virtually to where it started from. Game over. Much to the disgust of Passo who clearly thought this was the wrong shot to play, much to the delight of Quintais’s team who’d won the championship.
Interestingly, even the World Champions miss the odd shot and sometimes point badly. On one end, Suchaud missed a fairly easy shot twice, which Quintais also missed!
Before the match started, Quintais was asked what he thought of the purpose built terrain. He replied, “Very dry and hard”. Asked what advice he would give for playing it, he said, “Pray hard!”
La Marseillaise is a great petanque festival. It’s huge with over 12,000 players and lasts 5 days. Most of the top players enter – it’s considered one of the tournaments you have to win – but it’s open to anybody. You don’t have to qualify, just pay and enter. You might get drawn against one of the champions in the first round, or they might be playing on a terrain next to you. It has a ‘fun’ feel to it – many teams enter just for the experience, knowing they won’t get very far against the top players but they can still enjoy taking part and you can watch the World Champions play for free.
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