By Gavin Mortimer
THIRD TIME lucky for France? Philippe Saint-Andre will be hoping so when his third half-back pairing of the Six Nations run out against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday evening. The French coach began the tournament with Maxime Machenaud and Frederic Michalak, a combination he retained for Wales even after the defeat to Italy on the opening weekend. But when France went down to the Welsh in Paris, Saint-Andre brought in Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc for the visit to England. Another defeat and another change, this time Michalak coming back in at 10 and Parra continuing in the No 9 shirt.
It was the dominant issue of the press conference this morning following the team announcement, the French press clamouring to hear the reason behind yet another half-back partnership. This is the same media that has pointed the finger of blame for France’s worst start to a Six Nations in 30 years mainly at Michalak. Such is the fickle nature of modern sport.
In November the Toulon star could do no wrong. His virtuoso display in France’s 33-6 thrashing of Australia at the Stade de France had the Parisian crowd on its feet chanting his name. The press joined in the orgy of adulation, welcoming back Michalak after a break of four years with headlines such as ‘Hail the Prodigal Son’. Three months later and the 30-year-old was public enemy number one, despite the fact he was performing no worse than most of his teammates.
Saint-Andre is expecting a vastly improved performance from France against Ireland, and he believes a refreshed Michalak will be the catalyst. “Frederic’s had time to rest [and] compared to three weeks ago he’s regenerated,” he told reporters. Saint-Andre revealed that the Toulon conditioning coaches have discussed Michalak’s physical condition with their counterparts in the national squad and as a result “he’s a lot more fresh today”.
Michalak has always been a confidence player. Certainly in his younger days his cocky exterior concealed an insecurity and fragility that had to be handled with care. Bernard Laporte found it a challenge, Marc Lievremont didn’t even bother and Saint-Andre appears to be realizing that the best way to get the best out of Michalak is to make him feel loved. “Frederic was excellent in November and he played 50 minutes of quality against Italy,” said the French coach. “Over the course of the last eight matches, of course the number one is Frederic Michalak.”
The presence of Parra at scrum-half will also ease the pressure on Michalak, not just because he’s so much more experienced than Machenaud but because he can also kick for goal. All Michalak has to do therefore is spark his backline into life. He’ll be helped in that respect by the return of Florian Fritz at outside centre, the Toulouse 13 in line to win his 29th cap. Saint-Andre suggested in the press-conference that Mathieu Bastareaud was left out because of an illness earlier in the week, but it’s more likely he’s finally come to the conclusion that the big man is all brawn and little brain. Fritz is a different proposition altogether, a clever footballer who runs good lines and won’t be wrong-footed in defence by the dancing feet of Brian O’Driscoll.
As for the return on the wing of Maxime Médard at the expense of Benjamin Fall, Saint-Andre explained that it was a selection based on the strength of Medard’s kicking game even if his preferred position is full-back. “Yoann [Huget] has put in some good performances at full-back since the start of the tournament. And we know that in Ireland, probably under the rain since the forecasters haven’t promised a blue sky, he can expect to receive some up and unders.”
Huget expects, and so do France, but will Les Bleus finally deliver?