Frédéric Michalak can move with the times for France
Veteran half-back has returned from wilderness and like a good French wine he is improving with age
Even as a retired Test player, Jonny Wilkinson is having a say in the Six Nations' Championship. When France open their bid for a first title since 2007 today, they will invest renewed hope in Frédéric Michalak at fly-half.
"Michalak has got better by playing with Wilko at Toulon," said Iain Balshaw, the Biarritz and former England full-back. "In the old days Freddie would be miraculous one minute, then make a few errors. He's become a lot more consistent in what he does."
The game has changed and Michalak, more so than most, has been obliged to change with it. Largely ignored under the Marc Lièvremont regime in charge of France from 2008-11, Michalak suffered injuries and twice exiled himself to South Africa. He won his 50th cap in October 2007, three days after his 25th birthday.
Today against Italy in Rome, at the age of 30 and recalled by Lièvremont's successor, Philippe Saint-André, last summer, he will play his 60th Test. "A fly-half is like a good French wine," Saint-André said the other day. "The older you are, the better you are."
In England the trusted general tends to be the fly-half; in France it is the No 9, and part of the upshot is that many French players, including Michalak, try to master both roles. The problem as Saint-André sees it is the fly-half gets "sacked" when things go wrong – a damaging "culture" he is desperate to debunk by consistent selection.
After coming fourth in last year's Six Nations, France have won their past four Tests – with Michalak at No 10 – starting with the 49-10 win in the Second Test of a shared series in Argentina last June. During the autumn's clean sweep of Australia, Argentina and Samoa, the glamour tie was with the Wallabies at Stade de France (where England ambushed the French 24-22 a few months earlier). The score against Australia was a modest 13-6 at 39 minutes, after a dubious try by Louis Picamoles, the thunderous France No 8.
Then Michalak, red socks halfway down his calves, casually dropped a goal from the 22-metre line. In the second half he made the killer try for Wesley Fofana, the result was 33-6 and Michalak went off to a standing ovation; Australia beat England at Twickenham the following week.
Balshaw's meetings with Michalak date back to an England friendly in Marseilles in August 2003, followed by the World Cup semi-final in Australia, when Balshaw watched from the bench as Michalak had a shocker. "We always knew if we didn't put him under pressure he could tear you apart," Balshaw recalled. "If you give him a little opening, he's gone.
"What Toulon have done for him this season, playing him mainly at scrum-half alongside Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau, has improved him. He has a different style of rugby now, really impressive."
The flanker Yannick Nyanga had tears streaming down his face during the anthems against Australia. Next to him Michalak was calm and impassive. Unafraid to kick for position, or pass simply inside to big runners, he distributed sharply from the base of rucks as well as wider out.
From time to time, Michalak waved his arms impatiently. He has not become an automaton. And still when that opening came – just as Balshaw said – he was gone, dancing around Kurtley Beale on the counter and running away from three Wallabies before Fofana's speedy finish.
French critics decry Saint-André as conservative, even though he and his backs coach, Patrice Lagisquet, are both former flyers on the wing. Lagisquet coached Biarritz for 11 years to 2008 and had another season there, bossing Balshaw, in 2011-12. "Lagisquet is no fool, he won't be playing sevens," Balshaw said. "France will look to keep the ball and put phases together. But they will play when they can. You saw in the autumn their offloading and passing out of tackles."
Saint-André likes his centres to press up hard (think Elvis Seveali'i and Mark Taylor in Sale's Premiership-winning team of 2006). Florian Fritz and Maxime Mermoz have that task for France now, with the monstrous Mathieu Bastareaud fulfilling the dictionary definition of "impact player" on the bench. Fritz also takes the longer goal-kicks while Michalak with little fuss handles the short stuff.
In the absence of the injured Aurélien Rougerie, Vincent Clerc, Brice Dulin and Gaël Fickou, the back three comprise the Clermont centre Fofana and wings Yoann Huget (at full-back) and Benjamin Fall. The French will also need to deal with a six-day turnaround to Saturday evening's meeting with Wales.
"Italy won't be a pushover, and France lost to them in Rome last time," said Balshaw.
"If France don't 'turn up', it could be tough. I doubt it, though. They just missed out on the 2011 World Cup, losing in the final, and they want to stamp their authority on the next one in England. For a lot of the players, it will be their last one."
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