Picking up the circle too soon

[Post updated: 2020-10-01]
picking_up_the_circleWhat should we do when a player accidentally picks up the throwing circle before all boules have been thrown?

The earliest official answer to this question (that I know of) was given on March 30, 2011 in a memo by Jean-Claude Dubois, then president of the CNA (the National Umpires Committee of the French Petanque Federation). Our archive of the memo is HERE.


This can happen in two different situations.

The circle was marked

  • The circle is put back in its place, and the player (partner or opponent) who still has the unplayed boule plays it to finish the mene.

The circle was not marked
Here again, this can happen in two different situations.

  • The unplayed boule belongs to one of the player’s partners. In this case, the unplayed boule is dead.
  • The unplayed boule belongs to one of the opponents. In this case, the opponent should put the throwing circle back in its place, even if this can be done only approximately, and the opponent plays his ball to finish the mene.

In all cases, the offending player receives a warning.
The same rules apply if there are still several balls left to play.

Jean-Claude Dubois
Président de la CNA

Dubois’ answer was substantially incorporated into Article 6 of the FIPJP rules when the rules were revised in 2016.

In all cases the circles should be marked before the throw of the jack. … If a player picks up the circle when there remain boules to be played, the circle is put back in place but only the opponents [i.e. the offended team] are allowed to play their boules.

If the circle was not marked, who should put the throwing circle back in its place? The FIPJP rules don’t say. Dubois said that the opponent should do it. The rules interpretation guidelines of Petanque New Zealand say that it should be done by an agreement of the two teams.

If a pre-fabricated circle is moved accidentally by a player and the circle was unmarked, it is to be replaced by agreement between the two teams as close as possible to where it was originally. If no agreement can be reached, the umpire will place the circle in the most logical place.

There is a difference between Dubois’ memo and the new FIPJP rule. Dubois said that if the circle was marked, and the offending team still had unplayed boules, they could throw them. (Only if the circle was NOT marked was the offending team forbidden to throw its remaining boules.) The FIPJP rules has no such provision— the offending team is forbidden to throw its remaining boules regardless of whether the circle was marked.

When this happens, umpires always want to know who they should penalize. Should they give a warning (yellow card) to the player who prematurely picked up the circle? Should they penalize the player that failed to mark the circle when he placed it? Dubois’ memo says that the umpire should penalize the player who prematurely picked up the circle. The FIPJP rules leave the matter up to the discretion of the umpire.

What is a “boule thrown contrary to the rules”?

[updated 2021-06-12]
The title of Article 24 is “Boules thrown contrary to the rules”.

Except for cases in which these rules provide specific and graduated penalties as outlined in article 35, any boule thrown contrary to the rules is dead and if marked, anything that it has displaced in its travel is put back in place. However, the opponent has the right to apply the advantage rule and declare it to be valid. In this case, the boule pointed or shot, is valid and anything it has displaced remains in its place.

Note that if a boule was thrown “contrary to the rules”, that doesn’t automatically mean that the boule is dead. It means that the offended team can choose what to do about the situation. The offended team has two options. (1) They can choose to un-do the event by picking up the offending boule and returning everything else to its original position (as much as possible). Or: (2) They can choose to leave everything where it is and carry on with the game.

When the FIPJP international umpires committee wrote this rule, what did they mean by a “boule thrown contrary to the rules”? The answer is— nobody knows. The only time that the FIPJP rules included an example of what was meant by a “boule thrown contrary to the rules” was between 2008 and 2010. The example was of a boule thrown from a circle other than the one from which the jack was thrown. We don’t know why the umpires inserted that example in the 2008 rules, or why they deleted it in 2010.

Perhaps if we examine the rules governing the throwing of boules, we can come up with a list of ways in which a boule might be thrown contrary to the rules. Perhaps something like this…

  1. Throwing two or more boules simultaneously.
  2. Throwing more boules than you’re allowed.
  3. Throwing while a toe or heel encroaches on the circle.
  4. Lifting a foot before the thrown boule hits the ground.
  5. Throwing while holding an “extra” boule (see Article 15).
  6. Throwing from the wrong circle, or from outside the correct circle.

Note that throwing a boule that belongs to a team-mate or an opposing player isn’t on this list. It has its own rule in Article 23.

It is a matter of debate whether a boule thrown out-of-turn should be considered “thrown contrary to the rules”. See our posts on boules thrown out of turn and dealing with a forgotten boule.

Clearing the circle

Perhaps the least understood of all the rules is this “mystery clause” from Article 6.

The interior of the circle can be completely cleared at any time during the mene, but its state must be restored at its end [i.e. at the end of the mene].

Now, all experienced petanque players are familiar with the taboo on grooming the terrain during a game, and specifically the taboo against removing anything – a leaf or a pebble – from the terrain during a game. As Article 10 says —

It is strictly forbidden for players to press down, displace or crush any obstacle whatever on the playing area.

Being familiar with this taboo, the best interpretation that players can put on the mystery clause is that it creates an exception to the taboo. That is, it allows you to remove a leaf or pebble from the terrain but only if —

  1. The leaf or pebble is inside the circle.
  2. You put the leaf or pebble back in its original position at the end of the mene.

Presumably this exception is to permit a player to temporarily groom the inside of the circle in order to insure a solid footing while throwing.

Still… interpreted this way, the rule is odd. Would a leaf or a few pebbles really impair a thrower’s footing? If a player needs to clear only a leaf or a pebble, why would the rule say that the circle can be “completely” cleared? What exactly does does the word “completely” mean here? And of course the requirement to put the leaf or pebble back in its exact original place seems silly.

Players know that the rule is odd. I’ve seen a few occasions when a player really did remove a twig from the circle. Nobody objects. But the player gets a lot of jokes about, say, marking the position of the twig so he can put it exactly back in its original position after he throws. And of course, he never bothers to do it. That would be absurd.

So— players clearly know that the rule is odd, but they give it the most sensible interpretation that they can.

As it happens, this interpretation of the mystery clause — while completely understandable — is wrong.

During a discussion on his “Ask the Umpire” Facebook group, English international umpire Mike Pegg revealed the true meaning of the rule. (Note that Mike, as an international umpire, is a member of the FIPJP Umpires Commission, the group that writes the rules.)

As for the evolution or development of the rules… each time we get a problem that is not covered by the rules we look to either adapt a current rule or if that is not possible we write a new one.

But the basics of the rules have been designed with the World Championships as first priority. For example:

At the 1996 World Champs (Essen) the terrain was very deep and it was impossible to draw a circle (this was before resin circles). The players were permitted to remove the stones to make a flat circular area. They used their feet to push the stones into a circular shape revealing a hard flatter surface underneath.

At the next rule review, the rules about the circle were modified to allow the removal of the stones.

This worked, but of course it left huge circular craters in the terrain. As Mike says —

Of course no one thought about restoring the area after the mene so we had a few issues to deal with during play.

At the next rule review (2002), the rules about the circle were modified to allow the removal of the stones. But the rules also state that the area must be reinstated after the mene.

So the bottom line is that when Article 6 says

The interior of the circle can be completely cleared at any time during the mene, but its state must be restored at its end [i.e. at the end of the mene].

it means that, if necessary, players are permitted to form a throwing circle by excavating loose surface material to create a circular depression. If they do, the excavated circle must be filled in again at the end of the mene.

Now that the use of plastic circles has become universal in championship competitions, it might seem that the mystery clause is obsolete. But it is not. Even with the use of plastic circles, players may still want to clear the circle.

The 2013 final of the Masters de Petanque, for example, was played on a very rough terrain, very rocky. In the YouTube video during the first mene, at 3:17 you can see a Madagascar player clearing the circle in order to get a sound footing, and at 8:46-8:49 you can (not so clearly) see Philippe Suchaud, who threw the last boule of the mene, smoothing things out after he has picked up the circle.clearing_the_circle_02

Cooking the boules

Article 2 of the rules – “Characteristics of approved boules” – discusses the requirements for approved boules (boules agréées). But it doesn’t provide all of the requirements for competition boules.

boules_on_the_grill_from_boules_de_leonThe FIPJP’s full requirements for certified boules (boules homologuées) are laid out in a separate document called Conditions Requises Pour L’homologation De Boules De Petanque De Competition (“Requirements for the Certification of Competition Petanque Boules”).

This document (in French) can be downloaded from the FIPJP website. (Look for “Règlement pour l’agrément de boules” toward the bottom of the page.) Or you can download our English translation from the “Rules of Petanque” website.

That second document — “Requirements for the Certification of Competition Petanque Boules” — gives the FIPJP’s technical requirements for competition petanque boules (size, weight, etc.). And it lays out the procedures that manufacturers must use to get official FIPJP certification for a product line of competition boules.

According to the Preamble, one of the goals of the document is

To insure the safety of players and spectators by providing binding standards for materials and manufacturing processes, with the goal of avoiding any risk – in particular, any risk of being hit by a piece of metal.

The document seems to take safety quite seriously. Section II, article 7 even specifies that the light coat of paint that manufacturers use to protect carbon steel balls from rust must be tested.

These coatings will be impact-resistant, and the manufacturer must conduct tests to prove that the products used generate no splinters that could be dangerous for users.

In keeping with the goal of safety, Section II, article 3 specifies a minimum and maximum permissable hardness for boules – 35 HRC for a soft boule, and 55 HRC for a hard boule. HRC is the measure of a boule’s hardness on the Rockwell C hardness index.

When a manufacturer submits an application for certification for a new model of boule, he must submit several pieces of information about it, including the material of which it is made and “the hardness and its method of production, and its means of verification” (I, 5).

Steel’s hardness is determined by the way it is heat-treated. When steel is being worked, it is first heated to a very high temperature and then cooled very quickly. This rapid cooling is called “quenching” and it leaves the steel in a very hard, brittle condition.

The steel is then reheated to a lower temperature and allowed to cool slowly. This is called “tempering” (or “annealing”) and it reduces the steel’s hardness and brittleness, making it softer, tougher, and more ductile. To achieve a particular level of softness, the steel is heated to a particular temperature, maintained at that temperature for a particular amount of time, and then allowed to cool slowly in still air.

The bottom line for petanque players and umpires is this –
If you know what you’re doing, you can make a steel boule softer by “cooking” it.

You need to know that the FIPJP has set a limit to the softness of certified boules, and a little bit about the chemistry of hardness, in order fully to understand Article 2’s specification that…

It is specifically forbidden to heat treat boules in order to modify the hardness given by the manufacturer.

Now that we have that information, we can understand what’s going on.

  • For reasons of safety and consistency, the FIPJP requires manufacturers to produce boules with a hardness between 35 and 55 HRC.
  • According to folk wisdom and petanque tradition, shooters want soft boules, to minimize rebound and increase their chances of making carreaux.
  • A trained engineer might be able to re-temper a certified boule, after it left the factory, to make it softer.
  • So on the theory that “if soft is good, softer is better”, a shooter might come up with the idea of re-tempering the softest boule that he could buy, to make it even softer than the 35 HRC permitted by the “Regulations for Certification”.

Article 2 specifically forbids that practice.

So, how can an umpire at a tournament detect a set of cooked boules?

Well there is this device, le balancier. I read about it on the educnaute-infos blog.

You take two boules and put them in the cradles. One boule simply hangs in its cradle. The other is pulled back to a specific distance and the device is cocked. Then the boule is released via a trigger.

The swinging boule hits the hanging boule and knocks it away, like the balls in a Newton’s cradle. A pointer indicates how far it was knocked. The distance it was knocked indicates the hardness of the boules.

Educnaute-infos says that it’s not used very much.

Barriers and wooden surrounds

See other posts about boundaries and boundary lines.

The word “barriers” occurs only once in the official FIPJP rules, in Article 5.

When the terrains of play are enclosed by barriers, these must be a minimum distance of 1 meter from the exterior line of the playing area.

“Barriers” here means fences or crowd-control barriers, either temporary or permanent, whose purpose is to keep spectators off of the playing area. Such fences are often portable steel barriers installed temporarily at tournaments. But they may also be permanent barriers that are parts of the architecture of a boulodrome.

Note that the word “barriers” does NOT refer to low wooden surrounds (ball stops, backboards) designed to keep boules from being knocked out of the playing area. Traditionally, such wooden surrounds were simply wooden boards, held in place by big nails driven into the ground. Such wooden surrounds are often made out of recycled railroad ties (“sleepers” in British English).

Here are some photos that show barriers at petanque matches.

This is a shot from La Folie Pétanque, a film about petanque by Bruno Evenou. The gentleman in the foreground is a team coach — that’s why he is allowed to sit between the steel barriers (left) and the wooden surround.

Note the string marking the out-of-bounds line — it is about 30cm inside the wooden surround. The area where the coach is sitting is quite narrow — perhaps 70cm. Just enough to allow 1 meter between the out-of-bounds string and the barriers.

Here is a photo from a 2009 championship match in Düsseldorf.
The barriers appear to be permanent fixtures in an indoor boulodrome.

A petanque tournament at Metz. The players at the left are forming the couloir along the chalk out-of-bounds line. Immediately behind their heels is the wooden surround.

Beyond the surround and the blue walkway is the barrier, which seems to be composed of large placards. Behind the barriers sit the spectators and an orange control table.

For many years before 2008, in English versions of the rules, the French word barrières was translated not as “barriers” but as “solid barriers”.

If the terrain is surrounded by solid barriers these must be a minimum of 30 cm outside the dead ball line.

To many players the expression “solid barriers” didn’t suggest portable steel fences — it brought to mind the solid wooden surrounds that they saw when playing at their local petanque courts. So this mistranslation caused a lot of confusion in the English-speaking petanque community.

Before 2008, the rules specified that the exterior dead-ball line should be up to 4 meters outside of the exterior lanes, and any barriers should be at least 30cm beyond the dead-ball line.

In 2008 the rules were dramatically revised and simplified. The revision pulled the exterior dead-ball line inward and drew it tight around the playing area — the exterior dead-ball line now followed the exterior lines of the exterior lanes of the playing area. Barriers were now at least a meter outside of the exterior dead-ball line. And the word “solid” was removed from the English translation of Article 5.

This caused more confusion. A good illustration of the situation is the request, sent in 2010 by the Australian Petanque Federation to the FIPJP, asking for clarification of Article 5. The FIPJP Umpires Commission wrote back, saying —

The “solid barriers” referred to in Article 5 are those which are (usually temporarily) put up to prevent spectators etc from interfering with play.

If the terrain is surrounded by a fence, or a barrier as such to prevent spectators from entering the area, this should be 1 metre from the dead boule line.

If the terrain is surrounded by a timber plank or such like to stop the boules, it is recommended that this be at least 30cm from the dead boule line. There is nothing written in the rules that such a solid boundary (timber plank etc) must be 30cm from the dead boule line, it is only to ensure that the boules can fully cross the dead boule line.

The purpose of keeping the barriers at least a meter from the playing area is to allow players enough room to throw with a normal backswing, without any fear of hitting a barrier. In personal correspondence, International Umpire Mike Pegg wrote this about the 2008 revision of the rules.

In 2008 we tried to simplify the rules. Now the outer line of the lanes is also the dead ball line, and the barriers for spectators must be at least one meter outside of the dead ball line.

And why is there a distance of one meter from the dead ball line to the barriers?

The 2008 rules simplifications also did away with the rule that the circle must be 1 meter from the dead ball line. Now players can place the circle next to (but not over) the outer line of their lane. So the 1 meter distance between the dead ball line and the barriers allows the players enough room for their back swing.

Officially, the rules say absolutely nothing about wooden surrounds. Unofficially, the FIPJP still remembers the old rule that the barriers must be 30cm outside of the dead-ball line, and recommends that wooden surrounds be located at least 30cm outside of the exterior dead-ball line.

This makes sense. A 30cm space between the strings of the dead-ball line and the wooden surround makes it easy to recognize when a ball has gone out-of-bounds. It insures that a boule can fully cross the exterior dead-ball line before hitting the surround. And it helps to prevent boules that go out-of-bounds from bouncing back onto the terrain.

Solid barriers no longer exist in the English-language version of the rules, but “solid” may have become permanently embedded in English petanque terminology. Here’s a diagram of a petanque playing area from the Petanque New Zealand 2014 Protocols For Hosting National Championship Tournaments.

1. If the terrain has a permanent solid boundary, such as the low wooden edges of former bowling greens, the dead ball line should be at least 30cm from them (to allow the boule to completely cross the dead ball line).

2. If the terrain is surrounded by temporary solid barriers (such as those used for crowd control), these must be at least 1 metre from the dead ball line.