Time for Michalak to answer critics
November 3, 2009
Can Frederic Michalak prove his doubters wrong? © Getty Images
France has had more than its fair share of mercurial talents over the years but there have been few to polarise opinion as much as Frederic Michalak.
To his supporters, he's a flawed genius; poorly treated by his coaches in the past and misunderstood by the great unwashed. Michalak's crime is that he was born twenty years too late into a rugby world that celebrates its foot soldiers over its princes.
There are countless who would disagree. Peel away the tricks, the flicks and the good looks they say, and you'll find a flaky and inconsistent show-pony that just can't cut it in pressure situations.
Objectively speaking, the truth is somewhere in between. It's also best represented by the fact that having amassed 50 caps for his country over the last nine years, coaches and supporters alike still aren't sure what constitutes his best position.
Less than 12 months have passed since Marc Lièvremont declared that he'd never pick the Toulousain as a fly-half and that his future lay in the No.9 shirt. His recall to the French squad as one of two stand-offs was therefore a little unexpected, but then again expecting the unexpected has become a full-time job for those who attempt to second-guess Lièvremont.
Nor has there been any great surge in form from the 27-year-old to explain the recall. During last weekend's away loss to Racing Metro, Michalak once again reminded all and sundry that he frustrates more than he delights.
There were a few moments of magic; a flick pass here and a deft little chip over a rushing defence there but there just wasn't enough control to his game. And as for his place-kicking - well let's not go there.
That Toulouse lost the game wasn't entirely Michalak's fault but it would have been interesting to know the result had coach Guy Noves switched Jean-Baptiste Elissalde to ten and Michalak to nine.
So what does Lièvremont see in the player that no one else sees? Exactly what has changed since he declared that Michalak would never play at fly-half under his tenure? That answer is not to be found with Michalak but with the evolution of this French side, especially since last season's Six Nations.
Winning against the All Blacks in Dunedin in June was undoubtedly a huge shock for the home side but as any Frenchman will tell you, the sight of France actually playing for eighty minutes would have prompted the beret-clad amongst us to down copious glasses of eau de vie. That they managed a similarly impressive performance in the second Test was proof enough that Lièvremont might have finally found a game plan and a balance between grafters and match-winners in his side.
Michalak, for all his faults, is a match-winner. The Toulousain is another piece of the jigsaw that if used correctly, could help net France the scalps of South Africa and New Zealand this autumn.
As he showed two years ago against the All Blacks in the World Cup quarter-final, Michalak has the potential to terrify opponents - as well as his own team mates - and his ability to conjure something out of nothing as well as offering something different off the bench will likely see him clinch a bench spot for the game against South Africa.
Michalak's presence could mean a disappointing autumn for the talented Francois Trinh-Duc if Lièvremont decides to go with the ever-reliable Damien Traille as his starting option at No.10. The big Biarrot has been in good form this season and although he is in the squad as a centre, he's no stranger to the position and would offer the French coach an element of control before unleashing Michalak on tiring limbs.
With Lionel Beauxis and David Skrela out injured for the foreseeable future, Traille, Michalak or Trinh-Duc could go a long way towards cementing their positions in the French side this autumn. Sadly, quality fly-halves do not grow on trees although one player to watch will be Montauban's Mathieu Belie. Whether he gets the opportunity to break into Lièvremont's squad is another thing.
Elsewhere in the French squad, the signs are good. Lièvremont raised few eyebrows by his standards with his selections, and with the return to form of stalwarts such as Imanol Harinordoquay and Lionel Nallet, combined with the continuing improvement of the two Maxime's - Medard and Mermoz, France look to be on their way at last to forming the fulcrum of their World Cup 2011 side.
The summer win against the All Blacks will have given Lièvremont some breathing space in the lead up to 2011 but he will be acutely aware that poor performances against either of the two Tri-Nations giants would be a huge setback considering the progress the side has made in the last six months.
A win would, on the other hand, confirm France's progression from misfit to heavyweight. France's very own misfit, Michalak, might have a role to play. And with Marc Lièvremont in charge, who would bet against him doing it?