Hugh Godwin: Fast Fredi gives French a glimpse of the grail

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The Independent Online

Zut alors! The question mark over Frédéric Michalak is now an exclamation mark and France can no longer be regarded as the unknown quantity of the World Cup. In posting a record win over Scotland, Les Bleus have declared their hand, and Michalak is just one of the aces.

We all knew that France possessed easily the best World Cup history of the northern hemisphere challengers, which in itself made their pre-tournament odds of 9-1 against landing the grand prize a trifle ridiculous. Still, those twin swords of Damocles - frailty at outside-half and indiscipline throughout the team - hung over Fabien Galthié's side in the way they have done at every previous tournament. Michalak, who turned 21 only a couple of weeks ago, may yet collapse under the weight of expectation ushered in by a near-faultless 51-9 victory in Sydney. But his goal-kicking is standing up well - another eight out of 10 yesterday to keep him on top of the scorers' charts - and the other vital statistics of the his game also back up the impression that the lad from Toulouse strikes a lovely balance between the kick, the pass and the run.

In defeating Fiji and Japan in previous pool matches France chugged sedately along in a 2CV's range of gears. They hopped into something rather more high-spec in the Telstra Stadium, and burned the Scots off in quick order. When Galthié, the captain playing in his fourth World Cup, was mobbed by his team-mates after collecting the bonus point try, it was good news for the esprit de corps.

Equally, nothing could have been more comforting to France's coach, Bernard Laporte, than the sight of his players keeping their tempers after Galthié was clothes-lined by Glenn Metcalfe. Flash back to an earlier generation, and the brutal memory is clear of the great Serge Blanco losing his head, and almost removing that of Nigel Heslop, in the France v England quarter-final of 1991. Laporte took over after France lost the '99 final to Australia, and is determined that wherever his side's latest campaign ends, it will not be amid a hail of penalties.

Laporte carries the nickname "Kaiser", not because of any arcane reference to a Teutonic monarch, but after the film character, Keyser Soze, and his habit of operating undetected behind the scenes. Yesterday's Usual Suspects were the French back row, Serge Betsen, Olivier Magne and Imanol Harinordoquy. The trio's combination for Betsen's first-half try was a classic; their overall blend is coming along nicely and is a worthy foil to what England can offer with Hill, Back and Dallaglio. Should the widely anticipated Anglo-French semi-final come to pass, it will be a fascinating battle within the war.

The front five may be Laporte's principal concern. But France are the only team to beat England in the last two years - in Paris in 2002 and Marseilles last August. There have been enough bites of "Le Crunch" to fill an orchard, with England 2-1 ahead in 2003, although they were outscored 3-1 on tries when victorious at Twickenham in the Six Nations opener in February.

First, though, either Ireland or Argentina are likely to sit the French exam that Scotland so singularly failed to pass. Michalak is possessed of a Max Wall gait accentuated by the en vogue skin-tight kit. He cuts a slighter figure than Jonny Wilkinson or New Zealand's Carlos Spencer, but has the grit that enables him also to play at scrum-half, and the vision to supply the muscle men in midfield.

No longer do France fling the ball around in the manner that allowed all the Home Unions to win in Paris in recent years. In many ways, even down to the use of an English rugby league coach, David Ellis, they have aped the approach of les ros-bifs. But not even England are so adept at the French party piece of the disruptive drive through the heart of ruck and maul from behind the back foot.

And still the heart tends to be close to the mouth when the French have the ball with a little space in their own 22. It is too much to expect the "Try from the End of the Earth" every time they play. But "Kaiser" Laporte has already gone a long way towards delivering France their first World Cup.