France's fear: is Fred too sexy for his shirt?

Country starts to wonder if the glamour boy can deliver
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The Independent Online

The thousands of England fans arriving for today's pivotal Six Nations match will find Paris plastered with the face of Frédéric Michalak, his eyes closed in silent contemplation. "Saint-Denis, pray for him," says the caption on the magazine cover at every newsstand. It's a pun on the suburb that is home to the Stade de France, not that championship rugby lends itself to hopes of divine intervention.

Michalak, of course, is the face of French rugby. When he smiles, the team smile with him. When he frowns... England may fancy themselves to open up a fault line stretching back to the Toulouse fly-half's game imploding at the 2003 World Cup.

The 23-year-old was not about to unburden himself of all his cares and woes when he met the press at the team's training camp just outside the capital, but he was honest enough to admit the doubts which endure. Asked if he feels more comfortable in his fifth season at Test level, he replied: "It does feel different now, but the team still has the same challenges. We are still up and down and we need time to put that right."

He says he is "100 per cent" over his recent groin injury, and that although he has an "automatic" understanding with Toulouse's Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, the recall of Dimitri Yachvili at scrum-half is "not a big problem".

Michalak is 23 but has played 40 Tests. Since the end of last year's championship - when he was a substitute for France's comeback win at Twickenham - he has started almost every international and is no longer thought of as a sometime scrum-half. Still, he is only ninth on the list of cap-winners in this French XV, and that is a good thing, according to the 32-year-old No 8, Thomas Lièvremont. "Fred needs more experience," says Lièvremont. "If he keeps developing I believe he can be the player of next year's World Cup. For now, the rest of us older guys can help by telling him to keep cool, because he always wants to produce the attractive rugby and you cannot always do this."

Everyone has an opinion on Michalak, from the crowd who jeered him from the Stade de France field earlier in this unpredictable championship to the most lovestruck female fan. Justine, aged 11, was given the chance to meet her hero and write up the experience in Attitude, the aforementioned magazine. "His kicking is his weak point," she tut-tutted, though she adores his muscles.

The training centre at Marcoussis is undeniably impressive in its bespoke rugby facilities, but it is hardly chateau-esque. More barracks than baroque, and Michalak, you sense, is at odds with the functionality. "I'm not super-strong on my history," he says, "but there's always been something between the English and the French. I'm not going to try anything extraordinary, I'll just try to follow the gameplan. Of course if I see an opportunity, that's something else."

He saw an opportunity against English opposition during the pool stage of this season's Heineken Cup, making a break from his own half against Wasps in Toulouse which led to a classic try. Wasps' openside flanker Johnny O'Connor was correctly positioned but outside him Josh Lewsey pushed up up too far, too quickly. The result was the No 10's dream: a gap to fly through and the rush of air around his ears as he does it.

Against Italy, Michalak scored France's fifth try in the final minute, with a jinking change in direction that was as instinctive as it was unpredictable. It only tempered the memory of the catcalling during the earlier 43-31 win over Ireland, when his faulty touch-kicks were part of an alarming second-half drop-off in the French performance.

"It was the first time I'd been in that situation," Michalak says. "It was strange and all I can do is try to cope. I can understand they were not fully satisfied but I prefer it when the crowd is behind us." There is a pause and then: "They expect a lot."

The carpers say Michalak is too ready with the photogenic pout. They pooh-pooh him as a Gallic Gavin Henson, and not in the sense that both men clearly possess great gifts for the game.

France's defence coach, Dave Ellis, knocks the argument down. "There are not enough superstars in rugby," says Ellis. "I've worked with Henson and he does and says things that are controversial, and I think that's great. He plays with his heart on his sleeve and Michalak is the same."

It is difficult to ignore the hype. One minute you may deride the tittle-tattle over Henson's hairstyle and shaved legs. The next you are meeting Michalak and making a mental note of the ear jewellery - a ring in one lobe, a stud in the other. Both are diamond-encrusted. Good, got that. Hang on, what was that about his defence?

"Apart from Jonny Wilkinson, there's no better defender at fly-half in top-class rugby," says Ellis. "And because of that he can read the opposition's defence. We've spotted a few things about England which we feel quite comfortable with exploiting."

Unlike Wasps and their blitz, England deploy the drift. It could encourage Michalak to kick less - Justine will be pleased - and run more. As the face of France departs, he flashes the James Dean lip-curl and smile. "Maybe it's better to be criticised now than in 2007. And I believe the crowd will be fully behind us against the English."

STADE DE FRANCE LINE-UPS

France

15 T Castaignède (Saracens)

14 A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne)

13 F Fritz (Toulouse)

12 D Traille (Biarritz)

11 C Dominici (Stade Français)

10 F Michalak (Toulouse)

9 D Yachvili (Biarritz)

1 S Marconnet (Stade Français)

2 R Ibañez (Wasps)

3 P de Villiers (Stade Français)

4 F Pelous (Toulouse, capt)

5 J Thion (Biarritz)

6 Y Nyanga (Toulouse)

8 T Lièvremont (Biarritz)

7 O Magne (London Irish)

Replacements: 16 D Szarzewski (Stade Français), 17 O Milloud (Bourgoin), 18 L Nallet (Castres), 19 J Bonnaire (Bourgoin), 20 J-B Elissalde (Toulouse), 21 L Valbon (Brive), 22 C Heymans (Toulouse).

England

15 J Lewsey (Wasps)

14 M Cueto (Sale)

13 J Noon (Newcastle)

12 M Tindall (Gloucester)

11 B Cohen (Northampton)

10 C Hodgson (Sale)

9 M Dawson (Wasps)

1 M Stevens (Bath)

2 S Thompson (Northampton)

3 J White (Leicester)

4 S Borthwick (Bath)

5 D Grewcock (Bath)

6 J Worsley (Wasps)

8 M Corry (Leicester, capt)

7 L Moody (Leicester)

Replacements: 16 L Mears (Bath), 17 A Sheridan (Sale), 18 S Shaw (Wasps), 19 L Dallaglio (Wasps), 20 H Ellis (Leicester), 21 A Goode (Leicester), 22 T Voyce (Wasps).

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland)

Kick-off: 3pm Live: BBC1

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