By Gavin Mortimer
FREDDIE’S BACK! Just a week after we were pondering the future of French flair, Frederic Michalak orchestrated a thumping 49-10 win for France in Tucuman of all places. Not many countries hammer the Pumas on their own patch, let alone Tucuman, a roughhouse of a town in the north-west of Argentina.
But France did, running up a record winning margin against Argentina and levelling the two Test series after defeat in the first encounter the previous week. And it was Michalak – 11 years after his international debut – at the heart of the six try rout, craftily creating the openings for the French three quarters from fly-half while also racking up 19 points.The 29-year-old was ably assisted by his half-back partner, Maxime Machenaud, appearing in his first Test and marking the occasion with a try.
Machenaud is a little known name to British rugby fans having hitherto played his rugby at unfashionable Bordeaux and then Agen. But the 23-year-old joined Racing Metro last month so he’ll have the chance to showcase his talents in next season’s Heineken Cup. Beware Munster, Edinburgh and Saracens, the boy can play a bit.
So can Michalak, of course, though in recent seasons Europe has seen scandalously little of arguably the most gifted northern hemisphere fly-half of his generation. Incredible to think that last Saturday’s match in Tucuman was Michalak’s first start for France since the 2007 World Cup. Incredible and a terrible indictment on the shambolic coaching tenure of Marc Lievremont.
Lievremont took charge of Les Bleus in the immediate aftermath of the 2007 World Cup, a tournament in which – if you remember – a moment of Michalak magic in the quarter-final enabled France to see off the All Blacks. His reward for that piece of artistry was to be dumped by the ultra-conservative Lievremont, a sorry excuse for a coach who preferred his fly-halves predicatable and pedestrian: think Lionel Beauxis, David Skrela and Francois Trinh-Duc, a trio of players who however hard they practise will never possess Michalak’s instinctive brilliance.
Admittedly a spell playing in South Africa in 2008 didn’t help Michalak’s cause even though he played in a Natal side that won the Currie Cup. Lievremont didn’t care because his face didn’t fit; too flaky, too maverick, too…Michalak. In the four seasons that Lievremont was in charge of France Michalak featured just five times, and all as a sub. Small wonder he packed his bags and headed back to Natal in 2011.
He’s back now, not for Toulouse but for Toulon, for whom he signed two months ago. Where that leaves Jonny Wilkinson we’ll have to wait and see. One of the reasons Michalak allegedly left Toulouse was his displeasure at being used as a scrum-half. He sees himself as a fly-half and that’s where he wants to play at Toulon – under Bernard Laporte, his old boss when he starred for Les Bleus.
A decade ago the erratic Frenchman and the obsessive Englishman were fierce enemies on the international field and it was Wilkinson who ultimately triumphed, most memorably on a wet Sydney night in 2003 when England knocked France out of the World Cup semi-final. Maybe Michalak will take his revenge next season by condemning his old adversary to that most ignominious of places for a professional sportsman – the bench.