Rachel Grunwell brings you the lowdown on a new form of exercise.


What is it?

A game played by two, four or six people in two competing teams, using a set of six steel balls. You throw a ball from within a small circle and the person or team's ball that is closest to the target (a small wooden ball) wins. Originating in France, the name petanque comes from the Provencal phrase ped tanca, anchored feet.

The game can be played on gravel or sand.


What's needed? Flat shoes.

The experience: I'm at Herne Bay Petanque Club, clutching a heavy steel ball.

"Throw it at the little piglet," club secretary Jean-Pascal Cuer tells me. "Throw it at what?" I ask. Surely there's no poor hapless pink mammal here. Jean-Pascal laughs and points at a tiny wooden ball on the gravel pitch - the aim is to get my ball closest to this ball. He explains that in French this ball is called a cochonnet which means piglet. It can also be called a jack or bouchon (cork) because once they were made of cork. This game originated in France, you see, whereas in New Zealand we tend to call a spade a spade, a rugby ball a rugby ball and a little pig a little pig.

Petanque has been played worldwide for more than a century, but the first official meeting of Petanque enthusiasts in New Zealand was in 1993 at Chris Priestley's Atomic Cafe in Ponsonby - the cafe's carpark, to be precise. Chris was awarded a life membership in the sport in April this year, and in 20 years, the game has grown to 1300 official Kiwi members, spread over 45 clubs.

Jean-Pascal says it's a game loved by all ages, kids can use plastic balls. In French villages, families get together to play it in the town square.

The beauty is that it's simple play and even people in wheelchairs can join in. At my game in Herne Bay a 90-year-old is competing and a few French folk too.

So, using the correct technique, I hold the ball in one hand, knuckles facing forwards and then I swing the arm up and hurl the ball up into the air and aim for the little piglet. My first shot hugs the little piglet. It's a fluke, and someone laughs that I'm "holding".

What this means is that my ball is closest to the little piglet. So my shot is the one to beat. Magnifique!

But very soon my ball is nudged aside by someone else's. Turns out every shot of mine after that is a real "pig". But I don't mind.

I enjoy chatting to fellow players, including Ann Shields, from Remuera, who has represented New Zealand in the sport overseas. She loves the game's tactics. "Shooting" involves knocking your opponent's ball out of the way, and "pointing" involves placing your own ball accurately.

"There's a time to be aggressive, and sometimes you let the opponent get a point so you can play another day," she says.

I look around and smile as I watch people play the game, chat and enjoy each other's company. After all, this is what most sports are about - people coming together and having fun.

How much? Membership at Herne Bay is $55 annually. Elsewhere it differs slightly.

Worth it? The game is inexpensive and easy to grasp and mostly attracts a more mature crowd, but 30-somethings kick along, too, for Friday nights in Herne Bay.

Try it: Contact the president of Auckland Petanque Association, Barrie Anderson, ph (09) 845 1966, or to find an Auckland club, see www.aklpetanque.org.nz

Rating: 8/10