Leader at No 10 passes his own question time

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The Independent Online

This game against Ireland was a massive test for France, and Frédéric Michalak in particular, and I think they passed it with flying colours. Lots of difficult questions were asked of the team and their fly-half after the World Cup semi-final débâcle against England in Sydney, and yesterday lots of positive answers were given.

This game against Ireland was a massive test for France, and Frédéric Michalak in particular, and I think they passed it with flying colours. Lots of difficult questions were asked of the team and their fly-half after the World Cup semi-final débâcle against England in Sydney, and yesterday lots of positive answers were given.

People looked at Michalak's poor performance against England and wondered whether he could bounce back. Well, now we know. Not only has he laid the England ghost to rest, but Michalak is now a real team leader and a really world-class No 10. I knew he had all the right attributes before yesterday's game, but his showing at the Stade de France just re-emphasised it all. Running, passing, vision and even kicking: this kid has the lot.

The win was important for France because, like all teams after a World Cup, they are starting the rebuilding process in order to be ready for the next tournament in four years. However, yesterday was even more important for Fred because the French coach, Bernard Laporte, wants to build the whole team around the young fly-half. He did not disappoint.

What impressed me most about him was his sang-froid. Short of facing England again, playing against Ireland in the opening game was the toughest of tests because the men in green are quick and physical. To beat Ireland, who do not just run the ball and take wild risks, you have to vary your game. Michalak did that.

France struggled early on and, when Michalak missed a relatively straight-forward penalty attempt after nine minutes, I thought it might affect him. It didn't. Instead of losing his cool, he kept probing away. He finally got on the scoreboard after 20 minutes with a simple kick from right in front of the posts and that seemed to relax him and his team-mates.

Suddenly, the French started to play the clean, neat rugby we have come to expect of them. Not surprisingly, the engine had been fired up by our version of Jonny Wilkinson. As soon as the boy wonder began to find his passing range, you knew France would be OK. He is so good at selling dummies and finding the openings. His passes are so crisp and yet so simple that you often don't quite realise how much damage they can inflict on the opposition.

Michalak's long pass out for the first French try was typical. It looked easy, but actually required good vision and excellent technique. What followed was not so impressive, though, and the less said about his conversion attempt the better. If there is one area he needs to work on it is his kicking. If Fred wants to be ranked up there alongside the greats like Wilkinson, he needs to kick like one of them.

But let's concentrate on the positives. When the Irish had a mini-comeback early in the second half, I feared the worst. French teams of old would probably have buckled under that sort of pressure, but these guys are much more mentally and physically tough. Michalak, like the rest of the team, relished his defensive duties and re-gained control. Rather than start panicking or listening to the nervy crowd, the players got on with it and scored two tries in quick succession. That, alone, is a good sign for the future.

The key now is for this side to learn to play well even when Michalak is not firing on all cylinders. France has found her No 10; now she needs to find the rest of her team.

Thierry Lacroix, the former France, Saracens and Harlequins stand-off, was talking to Alex Hayes

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