Holland, it’s not just about flowers and good cheese – it’s also about some serious petanque!
Friday 19th of September, 5:30pm
I meet Sofiane Lachani at London Heathrow. In 90 minutes, we will be taking off for a very short flight to Amsterdam. After a quick check-in we take off and 45 minutes later we are at Schipol Airport. At the airport, we get picked up by a very friendly dutchman called Hans Kramer. He is part of of the local club and our host for the weekend – P.U.K Haarlem. We jump in his car and 30 minutes later we will be arriving in Haarlem, the town hosting the competition. Hans kindly takes us straight to the petanque venue where we are made to feel very welcome. The venue has a large indoor facility with 32 pistes but also there are 64 outdoor pistes. The outdoor pistes are very selective and encourage a very high lob for pointing and boule to boule for shooting. I am loving it already. Sofiane tells me that it’s starting to get late and we need to check in the hotel which is only 10 minutes walking distance. We both want to get an early night as we want to perform well tomorrow. We are playing with Henk de Kwaadsteniet, a local player we met in May during the PUK trip to England. He is a very good player and we believe we can be a very competitive team.
Saturday 20th – the Triples
64 teams + including several international teams from Blangy, Belgium, North of France, and Norway.
We arrive at the venue early for a practice. We meet with Henk and present the licences. The format is unchanged from last year. It’s a straight knock out format to the final. However, if you lose your first game, you end up on the C (which happened to us last year – and we ended up winning it). If you win your first one and lose the second, you end up in the B. If you lose both, you end up in the D. Simple format which doesn’t really allow you any room for early mistakes. It’s a change and I like that.
First game. Right in the thick of it…we are playing one of the Dutch team trying to make the Top 8 Masters (the equivalent of our international Top 8 qualifier). This competition is a qualifier for the Masters and this is their last chance to secure crucial points. Apparently, they are right in the mix and need points badly. They are obviously playing under a great deal of pressure and this is showing. Our team however hardly makes a mistake and the game will be quickly wrapped up in 4 ends. Score: 13-2
Second game. The game is played in front of the main arena. I smell a rat and I am not wrong. We are playing another very strong team. Two Dutch players with a French guy wearing the National shirt Champion FSGT. This is a very difficult competition in France. WE have a top game and win 13-5 after another strong performance from our team. This was a great game to win and we are feeling very good about it. I start fancying our chances
Last 16. Sofiane tells me that we are now playing the Belgium Triples Champions 2013 and winner of last year’s event. I am very pleased. I am here to play great teams and so far, we are not disappointed. They have won both of their games 13-0 but I am confident we can beat these guys if we play at our best. We start strongly and get quickly 8-0 up. We hardly put a foot wrong again until the 5th end. I point a very first poor boule and at this level, it’s unforgiving. The team doesn’t back me and we concede 4 points. 8-4. The next 3 ends will be a succession of missed opportunities on our side where we should have scored and potentially even won it. But the Belgium team is getting their game together and you can see that these guys are full of experience. They even take the lead back to 8-11. We recompose and get back 11-11 only to concede finally 13-11. We are out and we should have done better. We know it and we have only ourselves to blame. Against teams like this, you have to keep your standards up at all time and take your chances.
The Belgians will then fail at the next hurdle against the Dutch players Tom van der Voort, Joey van Doom and Milan Saunier – I got to know them after their trip to London in August. Tom produces a very strong shooting performance and give the Belgians no chance at all. They take their chances which is exactly what we didn’t do. I watch the final. I learn. I think about my games tomorrow.
Saturday evening. The club organise a large chinese buffet with DJ, dancing, and petanque until midnight. It’s a great party and there must be at least 60 to 80 people. It’s fun and exactly what I needed to cheer me up. I meet Jeffrey De Lange, a local player we played last year in the first round of the doubles. Last year, he did a few card tricks for us after our game. I ask him if he would be kind enough to do some magic again. He accepts, goes to his car and comes back with several card tricks. 30 minutes later, I have over 30 people around me watching Jeffrey and his tricks. He is unstoppable and truly entertaining! Top guy. Sofiane is mesmorised! We leave again at a reasonable time and get ready for the Doubles the following day.
Note that on the Saturday, the club ran a Doubles competition with another 64+ teams at the same time as the triples. The standards were also very decent in that event.
The Doubles. 128 teams
I am playing again with Sofiane. Last year, we had to leave at the Semis as we had an evening flight to catch. This time, we are more organised and we have made plans to stay until the Monday. Last year, we really played some top games and we feel good about the whole thing again. Can we go one further this time or even all the way?
First game: We play two players of a certain age. I would say around 65+ each. Apparently, one of them was a former professional goalkeeper. I see them practicing and hardly missing a boule. I say to Sofiane…”we better play our best game if we want to beat them”. He agrees and we deliver. This turns into a very competitive game that we win quite comfortably in the end. Pfew. This could have been a nasty surprise.
Second game: We play another Dutch team. We take a very strong start 10-0 and then, once again we take the foot of the pedal. My pointing isn’t as accurate and Sofiane starts to unusually miss. They climb back 10-9…Sofiane comments on my pointing technique…we gently argue and this wakes us up. We don’t panic and close the game 13-9.
Third game: We are playing again in the main arena. I am told that one of the players we face is a former coach of Sweden. The pointer commits to every boule with a very high lob. It works perfectly but it’s very difficult to execute. I said to Sofiane that I have to take more risk in this game and do better than him. We take a slow start and go 3-0 down. They look very good in every part of the game but we then turn it on. My pointing is very accurate despite the challenging pistes and Sofiane’s shooting becomes perfect. We give them no chance and close the game 13-3. Good game to win.
Last 16: We know that if we win this one, we will be playing against the Belgium team we should have played in the Semis last year. We feel good. The piste is easier but still challenging. We play another very good Dutch team. We start strongly again and Sofiane shows some touches of magic. He shoots a coche in the first end for a maximum 4 points and we quickly get 6-0 up. The shooter can’t hit any of my boules and you can see that he is seriously under pressure. They switch and the pointer turns shooter. A very good move as he hardly missed a boule after this. The rain stops play and they climb back 6-6. They have several lucky boules and Sofiane tells me that this game doesn’t like us! My game is also not as good for a couple of ends now and he may have a point. Sofiane is starting to miss a few also and they climb 12-6 up. While we should have finished this game ages ago, we now must play our top game. Still, we can only blame ourselves – luck is only a part of it. We have our chances but we aren’t taking them. We recompose ourselves and score another 4 points. 10-12. At that point, my first boule is 50 cm long. Not good enough. I know it and there is nowhere to hide. The pointer puts a good boule and while it’s only 10cms from the coche, we agree that we need to point. I will take the point with my 3rd boule ending right in front of it. “Perfect, it’s 10m we should be OK with this one Sofiane”. Maybe in England perhaps! Because the shooter hits the pack first time and everything goes. Perfect shot. Oh dear…! Sofiane takes the point twice with his three boules and get shot twice again by the shooter. We lose. They took their chance and played better. We are very disappointed. I know our game dropped again and I certainly should have been more consistent.
Knock out games are unforgiving. Every boule of the entire day must count if you want to win the competition. We didn’t last the distance this time but we are left with the feeling that we aren’t far off the finished article. We agree that we need to play more often in these competitions in order to improve. This is the way forward. No easy game and competitive petanque at all time.
We spend the evening being entertained by the locals and we fly back in the morning. During the flight, Sofiane tells me that he is due to play a local league in the evening. With no disrespect, he knows that it’s going to be a complete reality check even if it’s going to be really entertaining.
What we learnt
During the flight, we analyse our game and how we can improve. We look at some technical parts of our game and discuss our tactical approach. We also compare the standards of petanque in England with the Netherlands. We both agree that the top 5 teams in England are very similar in terms of skills as the Dutch. However, our approach to the game is very different. They are more confident and aggressive with their game. We both agree that one of the factors is that they have access every week to these types of competitions which provide them with far more consistency. They also have more indoors venues which give them access to top practice all year around. They look more structured. A local club in Harleem has more members (200) than my local region. They have strength in depth and seem to be encouraging players to join. The support they provide to their national teams is also really impressive. Their Junior National team is playing in the competition and even defeated two of the Belgium team winners of the Triples the day before. They are full of confidence these two boys and are technically excellent. There again, if they play these type of games week in week out, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them performing well in the upcoming International Junior Championship. The Women’s National team was also playing next to us in the Last 16. They were giving the eventual winners (From Belgium also) a good run for their money. Pointing well and attacking every boule. The following week, the same women’s team found themselves in the Last 8 of the European Championship. Am I surprised? Not at all. When you have access to these tournaments every week, you can only get better and more confident. It’s the perfect preparation for a major tournament.
The Dutch have it all. A large membership of 18,000 apparently, great outdoor and indoor venues, selective pistes, competitive format, top players and a great sense of welcoming for English players! The 5th P.U.K Haarlem International tournament is in my opinion a great place to start your discovery of Dutch hospitality! Look no further and book your flight for next year…it’s just a week after Hayling Island and worth every penny.