Put out of grass first by his country then his club, French rugby’s former golden boy Frédéric Michalak is back and he’s as good as ever, writes Ian Borthwick.
WHEN Philippe Saint-André took over the reins of the French team before the Six Nations last year, the former international captain was faced with a dilemma. Only months earlier Thierry Dusautoir and his men had, after all, narrowly lost a nail-biting World Cup final 8-7 against the All Blacks at Eden Park and, despite what appeared to be a largely troubled and chaotic World Cup campaign under coach Marc Lièvremont, in the eyes of the French public les Bleus had once again risen to the status of national heroes.
How then does a new coach set about imprinting his own style when the team he inherits has come within a whisker of winning the World Cup?
Answer: With difficulty.
Consequently, despite coming to the job with his own firm convictions about the style of play and the personnel to implement it, when Saint-André formed his first national squad this time last year, apart from injury-forced absences there was virtually no change from the core group from le Mondial.
Twelve months on, however, after a lowly fourth place in the 2012 Championship, (wins against Italy and Scotland, losses to Wales and England, a draw against Ireland) France have moved on. With Saint-André ringing the changes, firstly on the summer tour of Argentina in June, and again in the outstanding home series last November, the Tricolores are not only currently sitting on a series of four resounding victories but they are set to attack the 2013 edition of the Six Nations with a completely renovated group of players. When France lined up to face Samoa in the last game of the year, winger Vincent Clerc, lock Pascal Papé and tighthead prop Nicolas Mas were the only three survivors playing in the same position as the World Cup final on 23 October 2011. And, of the 33 players selected for Saint-André’s wider Six Nations training squad, less than one third figured at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
For those who missed the spectacularly successful autumn series, France now feature a new captain (Papé), a sprinkling of thrilling young talent, and a canny mix of the old and the new. This is no better illustrated than by Saint-André’s daring selections at half-back, and his preferred new pairing of the 59-cap veteran Frédéric Michalak at stand-off, with feisty Racing Métro newcomer Maxime Machenaud at scrum-half.
In Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc (46 and 44 caps respectively), who both started their careers against Scotland in Edinburgh in 2008, France looked to have inherited a settled and eminently respectable half-back pairing. But, just as he has shown no hesitation in replacing Dusautoir as captain, Saint-André has deliberately taken bold steps to inject some much-needed pace and skill to the vital strategic zone known to the French as “la charnière” (the hinge).
The newcomer Machenaud won his first cap in the 49-10 upset win against Argentina in Tucuman last June, and backed that up with an outstanding display in les Bleus’ 33-6 thrashing of Australia at Stade de France in November. With only four caps to his name, blessed with a lightning fast delivery from the base of the scrum, added to a high work-rate in defence and an ability to breach the opposition line close to the ruck, he is now considered first choice in France’s No.9 jersey.
But, if Machenaud has suddenly become a vital cog in Saint-André’s system, it is also because he has been paired with the re-born “Freddie” Michalak. The 30-year-old Michalak needs little introduction, as his colourful career already spans more than a decade. Since he first burst on the scene as an 18-year-old in 2001, with a match-winning performance for Toulouse in the French club final, however, Michalak’s career has seen more changes of direction than a boy-racer lane-swapping on the ‘boulevard périphérique’.
First selected for France only three weeks after his 19th birthday against the Springboks in November 2001, by the tender age of 22 Michalak had already more than 30 caps to his name, he had already won a Top-14 title (2001) and a Heineken Cup (2003) with Toulouse while, for his country, he had pulled off two Six Nations Grand Slams (2002, ’04), but also lost a World Cup semi-final (24-7) against England in Sydney.
That desperate 2003 semi was the first of many turning points for Michalak. Up against Jonny Wilkinson, who is nowadays his team-mate at Toulon, Michalak’s notorious goal-kicking failure in the rain in Sydney signalled the start of a rocky road for the precocious genius. He had become the pin-up boy of French rugby, he was the darling of the press, and the household name that the French advertising machine so desperately needed to sell the game to the masses. But, while he was being turned into the figurehead of French rugby, cracks started to form in the façade. There was another horrible performance in the loss to Argentina (14-24) in Marseille in 2004. Then the Paris crowd turned against him, booing him off the pitch after an indifferent performance against Ireland at Stade de France in 2006. By the time the 2007 World Cup came along, he was no longer first choice, either at scrum-half or at stand-off, while his “role” as the face of French rugby had even been usurped by the bearded monster Sébastien Chabal.
Despite playing a crucial role in France’s upset win over the All Blacks in the Cardiff Rugby World Cup quarter-final in 2007, Michalak spent the next five years in an international no-man’s land, winning only four caps for his country, each time as a late second-half replacement. To kick-start his career, in 2008 Michalak took off to South Africa, playing Super Rugby for the Sharks and adding a Currie Cup winner’s medal to his trophy cabinet.
His return to Toulouse, however, was fraught with difficulty and when, in March 2010, he suffered a serious knee injury, his career once again went into free-fall. Despite fighting his way back to fitness for the business end of the French season, Michalak was considered surplus to requirements by club coach Guy Novès, and, after 20 years with Stade Toulousain, reluctantly parted company with the club.
In yet another twist to the tale, however, the Natal Sharks once again snapped up Michalak. Despite becoming an integral part of the Durban-based franchise, not to mention the top scorer in the 2011 Currie Cup with 193 points, he was still unwanted for France for the 2011 World Cup. But with another stand-out season in the 2012 Super 15, taking the Sharks as far as the final against the Waikato Chiefs, Michalak’s performances inevitably caught Saint-André’s eye.
“I could see he was going from strength to strength in South Africa,” admits the France coach. “So I phoned him up, to see if he was still interested in playing for France and setting himself a new challenge.”
So it is that, having returned to France, at a sprightly 30 years old, Frédéric Michalak is starting his 13th season of international rugby. With Jonny Wilkinson in charge of the No.10 jersey at Toulon, Michalak is obliged to ply his club trade at scrum-half. But, as far as Saint-André is concerned, after five long years in the wilderness the ex-future star of French rugby is back where he belongs. As stand-off, goal-kicker and all-round strategic general for les Bleus.
“A fly-half is like a good French wine,” quipped Saint-André last week. “The older you are, the better you are.” The proof, as they say, will be in the drinking.