By Gavin Mortimer, Rugby World writer
“MICHALAK IS back” screams the headline in this week’s Midi Olympique, alongside a photograph of Toulon’s Freddie, a player for whom the word ‘mercurial’ could have been invented. Michalak played a prominent part in easing his club to their sixth consecutive win of the season last Saturday, a 33-12 defeat of Castres in which Jonny Wilkinson scored 18 of the points.
Wilkinson and Michalak together in the same team, now there’s a sight to get hearts fluttering. Certainly the crowds outside the Toulon stadium seemed a little thicker, a little more excited, than usual on Saturday, people craning their neck for a sight of Jonny and Freddie as they stepped off the coach and made their way to the stadium entrance.
Of course, to accommodate the two players in the Toulon XV coach Bernard Laporte has had to shift Michalak to scrum-half, a position he’s played both for Toulouse and the Sharks. Michalak may see himself at ten, the position he prefers, and it’s an open secret in France that the national selectors would prefer him play at fly-half, but Laporte is adamant that Wilko (for the moment, at least) is his first-choice fly-half.
It’s a problem that has plagued Michalak most of his professional life. He turns 30 next month and it seems he’s destined to finish his career still chopping and changing between nine and ten. Not that he appears to mind for the moment. Toulon are riding high in the championship, four points clear of second place Clermont, and Michalak is enjoying feeling appreciated in his country.
Toulouse born and bred, Michalak was made to feel distinctly unwanted in the couple of seasons before he upped sticks and went to South Africa at the start of last year. He didn’t fit into Guy Noves’ way of thinking, just as he didn’t rate highly in the estimation of the then national coach Marc Lievremont.
But in Laporte, Michalak has a man he can trust. Laporte it was who fast-tracked him into Les Bleus for his international debut in November 2001, a month after his 19th birthday, and Laporte it is now who looks capable of getting the best out of him once again. Michalak is enjoying the confidence of his coach. “I feel very good in this squad,” he said after defeating Castres. “There’s an excellent team spirit and everything’s been done to help me integrate.”
The appreciation is reciprocated by all at Toulon. Club president Mourad Boudjella describes Michalak as “enormously modest…someone who puts the team before the individual”. As for Springbok second row Bakkies Botha, when he was asked by French reporters what he thought of Michalak’s presence in Toulon, he replied with a broad grin: “Freddie? He is back for real!”
This Saturday Toulon travel to Toulouse, the club where Michalak first had his introduction to rugby as a young boy.
Bizarrely – considering Toulouse are not in the best of form at the moment, having lost twice in the last month – Bernard Laporte has decided to give some of his top players the weekend off. Wilkinson, Botha, Andrew Sheridan, Carl Hayman, Matt Giteau, Steffon Armitage and Joe van Niekerk are among eighteen players who been told to put their feet up. Not Michalak, who’ll go to Toulouse knowing he has the opportunity to wreak revenge on his former club from his preferred position of fly-half. “I’m happy not to have been given a rest for this particular match,” he said, wearing what Midi Olympique described as a half-smile.
If he can engineer a win at Toulouse the half-smile will become a full smirk.