IT SEEMED as if all of France was holding its breath and at the same time cursing Frederic Michalak in the lead-up to this final RBS Six Nations, but despite the result in the contest of the half-back controllers it was Scotland’s “Little General” Greig Laidlaw who came out on top.
Michalak’s poor Six Nations form, and France coach Philippe Saint-Andre’s continuing selection of the Toulon scrum-half at stand-off, had led to such widespread abuse of the mercurial talent that he was forced to shut down his Twitter account last week. Michalak has been the great enigma of the past decade for France, a precocious talent as a youngster seemingly able to play both scrum-half and stand-off with effortless ease. But he has failed to translate that into any consistent form at Test level.
By half-time in this game, he might have needed an armed escort to the tunnel after a half in which his decision-making and execution was poor, albeit behind a struggling French pack, and this was only exacerbated by the control of the man wearing the No.9 in the Scottish side.
Scots are not meant to have the versatile skills of the languid French, but Laidlaw gradually took a grip of this game with as intelligent and skilful performance as we have witnessed from a Scottish nine in many years.
His kicking from hand invariably asked questions of the French, and often provoked errors in the slippy conditions; slick passing helped Duncan Weir feel his way into only his second Test start, vary his movement to the line and kicking for territory; and Laidlaw’s goal-kicking ensured Scotland claimed points almost every time they got into the French 22.
It was a masterful first-half performance from the scrum-half which will have given British and Irish lions coach Warren Gatland something to chew on. He will have more powerful and more skilful scrum-halves to pick for the summer tour to Hong Kong and Australia, but he does not have a more intelligent No.9, nor one as good at kicking goals.
The picture changed at the start of the second half, ironically after Michalak’s frustration had boiled over. Having gone inside to a torrent of boos, the second period was only three minutes old when the fly-half clashed with Stuart Hogg. Hogg seemed to be moving away and back to position when the Frenchman sought some “afters”, and threw some punches in the direction of the Scottish full-back.
Within a minute of the pair being warned, however, Michalak had received a confidence boost with his first penalty goal and minutes later he had his second, levelling the score at 6-6 and giving the French a new energy.
He had lost his half-back partner Morgan Parra at the interval, his influence on the game in the first half even less positive than Michalak’s, and with Maxime Machenaud alongside, and the French pack beginning to get on to the front foot, Michalak began to grow in confidence.
When a third penalty went over after 53 minutes the whole France team seemed to take a leap in ambition, the pack firmly dominating and Michalak beginning to enjoy rugby on the front foot. It was the turn now for the Scotland half-backs to rock on their heels. A Michalak chip-and-chase forced Hogg into a desperate clearance to touch and after a brief reminder of his frailty, when the fly-half was caught in possession and Laidlaw duly struck a match-levelling third penalty, Michalak was swiftly back into the vanguard of the French attack that led to the crucial try by Wesley Fofana with 14 minutes remaining, which effectively swung the game firmly France’s way.
Laidlaw was still a key figure but another battering attack led by Mathieu Bastareaud ended with Maxime Medard touching down and effectively ending the Scots resistance.
It was amazing then to see Michalak being afforded a standing ovation around the ground. The man roundly abused before kick-off suffered a shoulder injury and was forced to leave the field in obvious pain, and the Stade de France rose as one to acclaim him.
It would certainly not have been the same had the game not been sealed by that point, and France instead been heading towards a winless end to the championship. But that is sport. Laidlaw’s influence with Scotland is growing, but his team were not good enough to sustain the challenge in Paris last night. Michalak is far from the player he was a decade ago, but his side proved they have more in their arsenal than this tournament showed.