Allez! Allez! How France fell in love with Aussie rules

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Paris: It could be Tuesday-night footy training at any suburban oval in Melbourne: a motley crew of 30-odd men and women running the drills, handpassing the Sherrin, taking marks and booting the beloved ball back and forth with vigour.

“Allez! Allez! Allez! Let’s go! Ouiiiii! C’est bien, ça!”

Claire Perez, of the Bordeaux Bombers (left); Megan Anderson, Australian ambassador to UNESCO and Australia’s deputy head of mission to France, and Ines Aeply, of the Lyon Lions, in Paris earlier this month.Credit: Jessica Barratt

They are the men and women of the Paris Cocks Footy club: enthusiastic, skilled-up, and mostly French.

Dressed in a mismatch of old club guernseys (one reads “Love the Cocks”), French and Springboks rugby jerseys and one Socceroos T-shirt, their training ground is one half of a rugby pitch on the outskirts of Paris, the noise and smog of a busy ring road roaring in the background.

Most of the Cocks have never been to Australia, let alone to a live AFL match. Pretty much the only opportunity they’ve had to see an AFL game in France is to be in the pub at 6.30am for the grand final broadcast — an event which is, needless to say, a highlight of the club’s social calendar.

“When we talk to people about Australian football, they look at us with wide eyes and are like: what kind of sport is this? Then, when you show them a video, they say it’s even more bizarre than they thought,” laughs Pauline Clement.

Like many of the Cocks, Clement, 28, played rugby before switching to Australian rules, which she says is a more complex and rounded game.

“What I really love about Australian football is the team spirit and the kicking game,” she says. “And that the ball goes in all directions. The game space is much bigger, you use the whole field and I love that.”

Paris Cocks is one of eight Australian rules clubs that make up the French league. Two men’s and one women’s teams – dubbed the Cockatoos, Cockerels and Cockerelles (elle being French for she) – train together twice a week, and travel around France several times a year to play nine-a-side matches on local rugby pitches, where plastic cones and posts delineate the playing field.

Other calendar fixtures include the European Champions League (staged by AFL Europe) and the annual Anzac Day France v Australia men’s and women’s matches in the hallowed town of Villers-Bretonneux in northern France.

“For many years, the Australian team dominated the Anzac Day matches but for the last couple of years, it’s been the French teams,” says Paris Cocks president and Brisbane man Andrew O’Connor, 30, who landed in Paris five years ago to study and, like many Australians, stayed for love.

“We don’t want to just rely on Aussie expats,” he says of the challenge of recruiting new players. “We want to make sure that we’re accessible enough that anyone who is even somewhat interested feels like they’re welcome to come down and just have a kick.”

Emerentiane “Eme” Delacommune, 35, discovered Australian rules while living in London, and for the past five years has been playing for the Lyon Lionnes in south-east France.

She says the opportunity to travel around Europe and play for the French national team wouldn’t be possible were she to play a different sport.

Despite never seeing a live AFL match, Delacommune has adopted the Brisbane Lions as her team. She will move to Melbourne later this year on a working holiday visa and hopes to join a local club.

“I’ve heard that in Melbourne, all they talk about is Aussie rules. It’s like the other sports don’t exist,” she says with evident excitement.

So, if you spot a diminutive French woman running hell-for-leather on a local oval next season, give Eme a shoutout. The woman fully knows how to kick.

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