French flame sparked by emergence of Michalak

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The Independent Online

It is four in the morning, and Yannick Bru is in the land of dreams. Stirred by a sharp rap on the door, the granite-jawed hooker stumbles blearily across the room and reaches for the handle. There, waiting in the corridor with a bucket of cold water, is Frédéric Michalak - the new shooting star of French rugby, an incandescent amalgam of Codorniou and Maso, maybe even a Blanco for the 21st century. Michalak hits the target - when does he ever miss? - and then uses his street-urchin cunning to avoid the worst consequences of his victim's fury. He has some spirit, this prodigy from the rough side of town. No wonder they call him the "anti-Wilkinson".

The French did not invent this unusually vivid sobriquet as a means of insulting the most relentless accumulator of points in English rugby history; far from it. They respect Jonny Wilkinson for the very Englishness of his qualities and regard him, despite his trials and tribulations during this competition, as the single greatest threat to their long-cherished ambition of a place in next week's final. But the contrast between the two outside-halves is akin to that between earth and water, and the Tricolores see the difference as something to be celebrated, not mourned.

By common consent, it is scarcely possible to imagine Wilkinson, a solitary obsessive whose skills were honed on the manicured greenswards of private-school Hampshire, play-fighting with Martin Johnson in the back of the team bus or plotting some outlandish circus tent prank on Jason Leonard. By the same yardstick, it is difficult to imagine Michalak doing anything else. There is no hint of privilege about him; raised in difficult circumstances in one of the more challenging suburbs of Toulouse, he made himself strong - abnormally strong for his frame - because the least sign of weakness would have left him face down in the gutter. When he trades training-pitch punches with the hardest of the hard, Fabien Pelous or Olivier Magne, it is not merely for the purposes of a joke. He is marking out his territory and reminding his elders and betters that they are not dealing with a Joe Ordinary here.

And this is the man, a month into his 22nd year, who has put a torch to this jamboree and set it ablaze. Others have had their moments - Carlos Spencer, Semo Sititi, Brian Lima, Joe van Niekerk, Rupeni Caucaunibuca - but Michalak is the talk of the tournament.

Yesterday, at the French team base in Bondi, he appeared before a full battalion of media types with a stud in each ear, two days' growth on his chin and a haircut straight out of Papillon. He talked for 40 minutes without a care in the world; had he been any more relaxed, he would have been asleep. If Wilkinson's public appearances border on the self-flagellatory, Michalak's are the very definition of carefree bonhomie.

"Wilkinson? He has great experience and is used to playing the big matches, but he is not my preoccupation or my priority," he said, in answer to the predictable questions about Sunday's personal set-to in the England-France semi-final at the Olympic Stadium. "He is not alone on the field, is he? He has his team-mates around him, and rugby is a team game." Pressed further on the subject, Michalak smiled softly and added: "I think he is the one outside-half in the world with all the attributes, and for youngsters like me, it is logical to look up to him." As if.

Michalak is not above hero-worship, but his heroes tend to be of the local variety. "Christophe Deylaud," he said unhesitatingly when asked to name one. "I also have a great regard for Thomas Castaignède, but principally I follow the way of Deylaud. When I was in the junior team at Toulouse, I was able to watch him, train with him, learn from him."

There are obvious similarities between the two stand-offs; small, sinewy and decidedly unorthodox, Deylaud could transfix an opposition midfield before receiving the ball, merely by switching his balance from one foot to the other. The French call it "pre-action" - the art of creating space before a move begins, in order to give it room to flourish. Michalak has been raised in the tradition.

Toulouse, the greatest of European rugby cities, is his world. At 14, his talent was as plain as the celebrated nose on the face of Pierre Villepreux, and he was given a place at Lycée Jolimont, where Villepreux and other luminaries of the Toulousain game had helped establish a union academy. Pelous had worked his way through the curriculum and graduated with distinction, as had the likes of Emile Ntamack and Richard Castel. Michalak quickly forged a lasting friendship with two fellow back-line marvels, Clement Poitrenaud and Nicolas Jeanjean, both of whom were capped before him. He is now the most decorated of the three.

"When I was a child, I dreamed of playing in the outside-half position," Michalak said. So his teachers and coaches played him at scrum-half, at centre, at full-back; anywhere they felt might help him develop his understanding and broaden his view of this most complex of team sports. As a result, he could easily perform any one of four roles in the French team - a flexibility not only beyond his peers, but beyond any of the great Tricolore backs of recent memory.

Above all other negatives, it is memory that threatens French well-being this weekend - the memory of four consecutive defeats at Twickenham, of the worringly close shave against an English second-string in Marseilles two and a half months ago, even of the World Cup defeat in Paris 12 years back, when the French were considered every bit as likely to win as they are now. For this reason, players whose confidence levels generally disappear off the top end of the scale crave the status of the underdog. Michalak is no exception, despite his swaggering charisma and can-do optimism.

"What are England's advantages?" he asked, rhetorically. "Their main advantage is that they are the best, and that everyone knows it. Their performances in New Zealand and Australia during the summer established them as the number one team in the world, and they continue to play rugby of the highest level. I think we are playing well, too; we have had two and a half months together, a certain bond has grown between us and the strength of our personal relationships have helped us make the best of ourselves. Who will win? This is a semi-final. Nothing is pre-ordained, nothing is written down. It is up for grabs, this game. To reach the final, we must play a perfect match."

Just at the moment, no one left in the tournament is more capable of touching the heavens than Michalak, the street-fighter who plays like a poet. As one respected chronicler of the French game said yesterday: "He can play nine, 10, 12 or 15, but in the end this does not matter. What matters is that he has the mind of a hooker. When the fight is on, he will not back away. Never."