By Gavin Mortimer
“MISSION ACCOMPLISHED,” declared Philippe Saint Andre in the wake of France’s dogged 22-14 defeat of Samoa on Saturday evening. “Today is the victory of courage, restraint, solidarity. We did not panic when we conceded the second try. We were disciplined.”
It was indeed an impressive display from France, reminiscent, dare one say it, of England in the Clive Woodward era, in particular the 2003 World Cup pool match when a misfiring England found themselves trailing the free-flowing Samoans 10-0. But England didn’t panic, muscling their way back into the match and relying on the boot of Jonny Wilkinson to punish the indiscipline of the Pacific Islanders.
Nine years later and while England are now chicken-like in their headlessness, France are cool, clinical and calculating. And for Wilkinson read Michalak, his Toulon teammate, who has been in the form of his life this November.
The 30-year-old Michalak has in the last year or two matured into the player we all knew he could be. Still capable of sparking something from nothing – as he showed in creating Wesley Fofana’s try against Australia a fortnight ago – he’s now brushed off his flakiness and sharpened up his goal-kicking. Against Samoa he was deadly, landing four second-half penalties as France clawed their way back from a 14-10 half-time deficit. In all Michalak scored 19 of his side’s points and fully deserved the man of the match award.
But where now for France? Their three victories (Australia 33-6 and Argentina 39-22 were their other scalps this November) have consolidated their fourth place in the IRB rankings ahead of next month’s 2015 World Cup draw. That will ensure they avoid playing one of the big three from Down South, and as things stand right now they’ll have no reason to fear finding themselves draw in the same pool as any of the Home Nations, whose performances this autumn (save for Ireland’s win against an albeit exhausted Argentina) have been lamentable. Can anyone remember the last time British rugby was collectively so bad?
But despite the feel-good factor so evident in French rugby as a result of their three consecutive victories (make that four, bearing in mind they hammered Argentina 42-14 in June), Saint-Andre is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. “Three matches at such a high level, it’s hard,” he said. “We missed a little bit of technical precision, notably on the turnover ball against Samoa…but we won intelligently by forcing them into mistakes in their own half.”
There’s no doubt France will start the 2013 Six Nations as firm favourites, despite the fact three of their five matches are away. Italy shouldn’t be a problem (particularly as the French are vowing revenge for their shock defeat in Rome two years ago), while Twickenham is no longer the fortress the French feared. Ireland in Dublin will be the toughest Test, but the French are Ireland’s bogey team, with the men in green triumphant in only one of their last twelve encounters.
In fact, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of France and a Grand Slam might lie within in France, as Saint-Andre explained after the Samoan game. “These three victories don’t solve the problems that exist in French rugby in terms of the calendar and the preparation time,” he said, before thanking the clubs for allowing him access to the players for longer than usual this month. “But it won’t be the same during the Six Nations when the players will return to their clubs [between matches].”
A small gripe, perhaps, especially if you’re English, Welsh or Scottish. Now there you have a lot to worry about ahead of the fast-approaching Six Nations.