Michalak the mercurial falls into line management

The challenge from Toulouse
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The Independent Online

The pundits have been as busy as the coaches of Leicester and Toulouse, ticking boxes on teamsheets, weighing up the relative strengths and weaknesses. More than a few nibs and ballpoints, in the absence of the French club's injured 100-cap totem Fabien Pelous, must have hovered over the name of Frédéric Michalak. Or, more specifically, over the suffix of "captain" attached to the fly-half.

The pundits have been as busy as the coaches of Leicester and Toulouse, ticking boxes on teamsheets, weighing up the relative strengths and weaknesses. More than a few nibs and ballpoints, in the absence of the French club's injured 100-cap totem Fabien Pelous, must have hovered over the name of Frédéric Michalak. Or, more specifically, over the suffix of "captain" attached to the fly-half.

Here we have a 22-year-old French starlet of undoubted talent, yet one who was unable to convince his national coach, Bernard Laporte, that he should start any of this year's Six Nations matches, up against Martin Johnson, a 35-year-old legend on his last tour of duty. Michalak, a captain precisely once in his senior career, standing opposite a man who uniquely has twice led the Lions, and as a skipper won the World Cup, Grand Slam, Heineken Cup and Zurich Premiership. The pre-match toss-up, with the diamond stud-wearing Michalak staring up at the beetle-browed Johnson, looming almost a foot taller than him, might almost be worth the Walkers Stadium entrance money on its own.

We know enough about Guy Novès, the Toulouse coach who is synonymous with their sustained success in recent years, to rule out a whimsical selection, yet the suggestion in France is that he is attempting to bring the best out of Michalak by piling the pressure on to him. Given the way Michalak, by his own admission, was "rubbish, truly rubbish" in the high-pressure World Cup semi-final against England, it is a questionable tactic. "He has the spirit of Stade Toulousain," Novès said, but flighty statements will not be of much value when the coin spins into the air this afternoon.

An opportunity to judge Michalak's mood presented itself on Friday, with a video link-up between Leicester and Toulouse at which the respective teams were announced. Casually dressed in a red Nike sweatshirt, he let a few revealing facts pass the lips of one of the most famous pouts in rugby. "Apart from one match this season, against Glasgow [in Europe], the last time I was captain was at secondary school," said Michalak. "It's an honour for me, and I'll try to lead by example from the first minute to the last, but we have leaders everywhere on the field in the team, and we'll do it together. As the fly-half I'm used to taking responsibility. I have the soul of a leader, even if I don't find words as easy to come by as Fabien Pelous."

With Pelous's deputy, the hooker Yannick Bru, on the bench in favour of the more mobile William Servat, Toulouse appear to want an expansive game. "They have big ball-carriers in the back row," said John Wells, Leicester's coach, "and everything else will go through Michalak. As for the captaincy, I guess they aren't expecting many of the forwards to stay on for 80 minutes." It was a reference to substitutions, rather than any crossed swords with the referee, and Benôit Baby and Gareth Thomas epitomise the strength of the Toulouse bench.

Wells said he had gone for players in the back line "who can make things happen". Michalak falls into the same category, but his Six Nations diet of last-quarter appearances qualified him as one of Lord Flashheart's 20-minuters, so is he in the form to win over English supporters who remember that World Cup no-show? "I have nothing to prove to people in England," he said. "It's the opinion of the French selectors which is important to me. It's true I spent more time on the bench than on the pitch in the Six Nations. But I think the rest I received has brought me back to the Heineken Cup fresh and more of an in-form player."

Michalak's introduction for France in Ireland coincided with Brian O'Driscoll brushing his tackle off for a memorable try. But Michalak, the son of a builder in the Toulouse suburbs, returned to the bosom of his hometown club to snaffle a 70-metre interception try in the 37-9 dismissal of Northampton in the Heine-ken Cup quarter-final. In last season's Heineken final, Michalak was selected by Novès at scrum-half, with Yann Delaigue outside him, in the defeat by Wasps at Twickenham. As the first Frenchman since Jean-Louis Berot in the 1970s to occupy both half-back positions for his country, Michalak has tended to fall between two stools, as when he was switched from 10 to nine by France after last November's surprise loss to Argen-tina. His kicking has also been subject to severe criticism.

Leicester's fly-half, Andy Goode, says the cocksure Michalak is best suited to life at No 10. "At scrum-half, you are always reacting to events," said Goode. "As a fly-half, you are there to control the game, and you have to look confident even if you're not feeling it."

Wells said he knew 14 of Toulouse's starting line-up - the flanker, Jean Bouilhou, had been rumoured to be injured - and was too diplomatic to identify Michalak as a weak link. But that was the verdict of Wells's predecessor, Dean Richards, when asked to consider France before they met England in 2004. Michalak, who started four of Les Bleus' five matches in that Grand Slam campaign, said: "It's up to me to prove I'm not the weakest link. I've been in seven semi-finals before, in one competition or another, and the smallest mistake can be costly, especially against Leicester, who score lots of tries on turnovers. We're expecting a hard, physical game, and we hope we can deal with whatever they throw at us."

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