Frederic Michalak: France's fallen genius fights to regain respect on Six Nations stage

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It was as though he had been asked whether the people of Toulouse have a taste for cassoulet, the pork stew for which his home city is famous. Frédéric Michalak put down his knife and fork, looked across the lunch table in the Stade Toulousain players' canteen and raised his eyebrows.

It was as though he had been asked whether the people of Toulouse have a taste for cassoulet, the pork stew for which his home city is famous. Frédéric Michalak put down his knife and fork, looked across the lunch table in the Stade Toulousain players' canteen and raised his eyebrows.

"Do I train hard? Of course. I like hard work. I like playing. I like training. That's what I'm paid for. I feel very lucky. Even if I wasn't being paid to do this I'd be throwing a ball around with my mates. I'm here playing the sport I love, I've got people playing alongside me who have been my friends for years. Sometimes I come here to the stadium to train on my own. I come here to train on days off and during my holidays. Sometimes I train at my house. I've always got a ball at home..."

The answer tails off but the message is clear: Michalak may be the golden genius of French rugby but he has not forgotten that hard work and a burning passion for the game - coupled, it must be said, with a God-given gift or two - are what have taken him to the top.

They are also qualities which have made the last two months deeply frustrating for the 22-year-old. After he was blamed in some quarters - though certainly not in this French rugby stronghold - for the national team's disappointments in the autumn internationals, Michalak's club season was then interrupted by the recurrence of an ankle injury which kept him out of action until the middle of this month.

With doubts over his fitness and a question mark over his form, there were even suggestions that he might not make the French squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. When Bernard Laporte named his men for Saturday's opening game against Scotland those fears were only partially allayed. Michalak will start the game on the bench, his No 10 shirt having been handed - perhaps temporarily but perhaps not - to his former Toulouse colleague, Yann Delaigue.

To those who watch French rugby from afar, the very idea that Michalak's place could be under threat might seem preposterous. In the 2003 World Cup he emerged as one of the world's great stand-offs, a player of supreme confidence who combined ferocious commitment with classic Gallic flair. Although his tournament ended in misery in the Sydney rain as England tore down the Tricolore in the semi-finals, Michalak returned home to find his face adorning glossy magazine covers. Even L'Equipe, the respected French sports daily newspaper, devoted a front page to a photograph of him and the words "Michalak superstar".

More adulation was to follow. Within four months Michalak had helped France earn at least partial revenge over England, a sweet victory against les rosbifs in the final match of the 2004 Six Nations securing the Grand Slam. "Particularly because we were playing in Paris, it was important for us to prove something to ourselves - and to the public," Michalak said.

However, if a convincing 27-12 victory over Australia in the first of this season's autumn internationals seemed to confirm that French rugby remained on the up, the country was in for a rude awakening. A humiliating 24-14 defeat by Argentina - France's first loss in Marseilles and their fourth in a row against the Pumas - was followed by a 45-6 thrashing - the third heaviest defeat in French history - at the hands of New Zealand in Paris. Michalak, whose kicking had been woeful against Argentina, was switched to scrum-half against the All Blacks because of an injury crisis and promptly copped a large slice of the blame.

While Michalak prefers to let others assess his own form, he has been pleased to have the opportunity to state his international case the way he knows best, showing immediately on his return from injury against Llanelli a fortnight ago that he had lost none of his zip.

Against Béziers on Saturday he pointed the way to a 46-10 home victory with a penalty from near the half-way line after only five minutes. Playing at scrum-half and enjoying a rare chance to take on the kicking duties - Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Toulouse's regular buteur, was relegated to the replacements' bench at the end of a week in which he was dropped from the national squad - Michalak was constantly involved as Toulouse ran in six tries in an impressive display. Michalak converted five of them.

Did he feel a need to demonstrate to Bernard Laporte, the French coach, that he was back in good shape? "Not really," Michalak said. "I feel I've already proved to the Toulouse coaches that I'm in good form."

The self-belief clearly remains undented. "I'm always confident," Michalak added. "I never think: 'What will happen if things go wrong?' I have confidence in the teams I play in. It helps a lot when you have good players around you and I've always been lucky in that respect."

No matter how many good players he had around him in the autumn internationals, however, there was no disguising the fact that the French fell well below their traditional standards. Michalak was blunt in his assessment. "Argentina were better than us," he said. "They worked very hard. Most of the Argentina team play in France and they're good players. We shouldn't have been surprised that they would play well against us."

And the defeat against the All Blacks? "I prefer playing at No 10, but we had a couple of players injured and I was asked to play at scrum-half," he said in an uncomplaining voice. "New Zealand are the best team in the world - for the moment. They're strong in all departments. They're strong up front, they're very good around the scrum and they have excellent backs. They have some exceptional young players."

France will need to put their last two results quickly behind them if they are to make a successful defence of their Six Nations crown. "It will be very hard for us this year," Michalak said. "We have to play away to both England and Ireland. You also have to remember that last year the Six Nations came straight after the World Cup. England had won it and I think a dip was inevitable for them. They were never going to have the same desire that we had. It was different for us. We'd lost in the World Cup and we had something to prove."

If the whole French team wanted to kick the memory of their exit from Australia 2003 into touch, perhaps no player needed to do so as much as Michalak. After a brilliant display against Ireland in the quarter-finals - including nine successful kicks out of nine - France's boy wonder had been touted by many pundits as the most likely winner of what promised to be a classic semi-final confrontation with Jonny Wilkinson. Michalak, however, failed dismally to make his mark on the game as England ran out emphatic 24-7 winners.

"We were confident enough at the start, but the conditions were tough, with all that wind and rain," Michalak recalled. "You can't say whether or not we would have won if it hadn't rained, but the conditions undoubtedly affected us. We'd played very well against Ireland and we had a system of play in place which was difficult to put into operation in those conditions. We had to change things and we didn't do it well. But we've no complaints whatsoever. England were the better team on the day.

"I think their experience was crucial. Most of the England team were very experienced. And physically they were stronger than us. In those conditions that counted for a lot."

Michalak, moreover, looks back on the tournament as the turning point in his career. "Before the World Cup I wasn't sure of my place in the team," he said. "I was playing at scrum-half for Stade Toulousain and I wasn't a regular for France. To be given my chance in Australia, playing at outside-half, was a fantastic experience."

Delaigue, who was Toulouse's first-choice No 10 until his move last summer to Castres, where he has been playing brilliantly this season, is the man who might now stand in the way of Michalak's international ambitions. This is despite the fact that France are very conscious of the need to build for the World Cup they will host in 2007, when Delaigue will be 34.

Midi Olympique, the national rugby newspaper, has been fuelling the Michalak-Delaigue debate. Articles by Christian Lanta, the coach of Agen, Jean-François Beltran, the joint coach of Narbonne, and Didier Cambérabéro, the former French international, all argued the case for Delaigue, though not necessarily at the expense of the younger man. Beltran in particular wanted Delaigue, who first played for France in 1994 but has been largely ignored by the national team in recent years, to play alongside Michalak to give him the benefit of his experience; it was with Delaigue at No 10 and Michalak at No 9 that Toulouse won the Heineken Cup two years ago.

The only dissenting voice was that of Pierre Villepreux, the former national coach. "Michalak has the talent," he said. "I can't believe that he's suddenly lost it. He had the talent at 19 and he had it during the last World Cup and it cannot have evaporated... It's time to give him a break. Let him play the way he wants. Only then will we rediscover him as a great stand-off."

On this occasion, however, the vote has gone to Delaigue, who left Toulouse last summer because he feared that the club might not be able to resist the pressure to hand his No 10 shirt to Michalak. Few in French rugby begrudge Delaigue his international opportunity, his career having been blighted by a series of injuries, including a broken arm which kept him out of the last World Cup. Saturday's cap will be only his 13th.

While Michalak's relegation to the bench might have as much to do with a lack of match practice as any dip in form, there is certainly a feeling at his club that their hero tends to get the blame whenever things go wrong for France. The man himself, however, expresses surprise at the suggestion.

"That's the first time a journalist has said that to me!" Michalak said. "It's for others to comment, but all I will say is that it's a team game. The whole team has to be responsible for its performance."

Criticism, like acclaim and celebrity, is something that Michalak clearly takes in his stride. At the end of Toulouse training sessions he is the player most regularly sought out by both fans and journalists. Autographs and interviews are given with equal grace.

The son of a bricklayer raised on a Toulouse council estate, he says the attention he receives has no effect on him. Is he comfortable with being viewed as a superstar?

"If that's how others want to portray me that's up to them," Michalak said. "I'm not saying that I always approve of the way I'm portrayed. People take photographs of me and I can't influence what they do with them, but none of that stuff worries me."

Michalak says that simply playing for his club's senior team has fulfilled many of his ambitions. "I've been here at Stade Toulousain since I was seven years old," he said. "I've watched all the club's great players of recent years, like Thomas Castaignède and Emile Ntamack, and I just wanted to follow them. It was always a dream to play for Stade Toulousain."

Could he ever have thought that at the age of 22 he would have conquered Europe with his club and played more than 20 times for his country? "You can't imagine that," he said. "You play because you love the game. The rest is just a dream."

'We need to harness his skills in the team'

Guy Noves, Toulouse's coach since 1993, is the man who has guided Frédéric Michalak from gifted adolescence to international maturity. However, he acknowledges that there are areas of the game in which his protégé has much to learn.

"Frédéric is very strong defensively," Novès said. "Physically he's extraordinary. He gives his body to rugby. He never cheats. He needs to do more work on his kicking and he needs to gain more experience. He has great vision. He's a great individualist and we need to harness those skills into the framework of the team. He's a very creative player. At the moment he's a great creator of things for himself. I'd like to see him create more for the team, to open up the game for the rest of the side."

Novès has played Michalak at scrum-half and says he is equally at home at No 9 or No 10. "We need to see how his game evolves, particularly his kicking and his overall vision," Novès said. The injuries Michalak has suffered this season are a frustration, but Novès believes they are the consequence of his passion for the game. "He's always involved at the heart of the action, so he probably is more susceptible to injuries than a player who tends to keep his distance."

The coach believes too much has been expected of Michalak in France for one so young. "People want to set him up as an icon of rugby, as the future of rugby, as an emblematic figure for the sport. In my opinion that's a great disservice to him. I think that he now needs some stability, to be viewed in a more modest light, to find some serenity."

In particular, Novès is frustrated at the way Michalak is so often asked to carry the can for the national team. "When you look back at the World Cup defeat against England, people said: 'Michalak didn't play well.' I always said: 'No, it was the French team that didn't play well. It wasn't Michalak'."