The return of the prodigal son
January 24, 2013
Frederic Michalak looks set to pull the strings for France © Getty Images
What goes around sometimes comes around when you least expect it. At least that seems to be the case with France's enigma wrapped up in an enigma, Fred Michalak. It's almost 11 years to the day that the 30 year-old made his debut on the Six Nations stage against Italy, and it looks quite likely that Philippe Saint-André will turn to the Toulon playmaker when Les Bleus take on the same opposition at Stadio Olimpico on February 3.
Quite incredibly, it would be Michalak's first Six Nations start in seven years (the last one came versus Wales in March 2006) should the French coaching team decide to go with the man once regarded as one of the most naturally gifted Frenchmen of his generation. His next appearance for his country will be his 60th and while that's impressive going for any player, it's worth remembering that he had made it to a half century of French caps in the 34-10 defeat to Argentina during Rugby World Cup 2007. That ten cap period and the intervening years saw a whole lot of water flow under the bridge in Michalak's life.
The position of fly-half, like Michalak's career, has remained one of those enduring riddles in the French game. Historically the scrum-half has generally been the more important of the two in the country, and the nation has excelled in having a veritable production line of Napoleonic Nines over the years, with Morgan Parra and the superb Maxime Machenaud being the most recent examples. But fly-half is a position that has continued to puzzle here, with many French coaches seemingly happy to shoehorn scrum-halves such as Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, and for the most recent World Cup, Parra, into the position.
Michalak however, has always been a different animal. Nominally a fly-half by trade, he broke through at Toulouse aged just 18, before playing a starring role for France during Rugby World Cup 2003. Off the pitch, the handsome Michalak suddenly found himself become one of rugby's new icons of the professional era. Yet his early twenties were to prove troublesome thanks to the unrelenting glare of the media spotlight. To boot, doubts lingered about his consistency and his ability to control a game, with Toulouse boss Guy Noves often favouring the youngster at scrum-half instead of his preferred position.
By 2006, Michalak's role - a favourite topic in the bars and cafés of Toulouse for much of the Noughties - had ceased being about which position best suited him. Instead, his loyalty to his club and country was questioned at times, as was his interest in the game itself. The low point may have been reached by 2007, when aged just 24, Michalak found himself being booed off the pitch at Ernest Wallon and the Stade de France with increasing regularity.
Unable to rediscover the form which had marked him out in the early part of his career and tired of the goldfish bowl existence that he had to put up with in his home town, Michalak finally bolted to the Sharks in South Africa in 2008, initially for a six month hiatus but returning there once again in 2011 following another unsuccessful spell with Toulouse.
When he returned to France last summer, he did so at the behest of the coach who first capped him for France, Bernard Laporte, joining forces with him at Toulon. Now married with a son, having met his wife Cindy in South Africa in 2008, Michalak returned to France last summer with a new found maturity in his game.
This season, he's been an integral part of a Toulon squad that along with Clermont Auvergne, look a cut above anything else in Europe this year. The stats tell us he's started more games at scrum-half than at 10 but the question remains: What position can we expect Michalak to play in when the Six Nations kicks off at the start of February?
Capped just four times under Marc Lièvremont in the period between 2008 and 2011, Philippe Saint-André wasted no time reintroducing the playmaker back into his side on last summer's tour to Argentina, and he's since gone on to start the last four Tests in the Number 10 jersey. Contrast that with the six minutes Francois Trinh-Duc has managed in those Tests and it gives you some idea of where France's head coach sees the mercurial Michalak.
With Les Bleus' options in the fly-half department seemingly as bare as they've ever been (one wonders what Guy Noves would have given to have Michalak having watched Lionel Beauxis turn in another poor performance against Leicester last weekend), it should come as no surprise that Michalak's career has come full circle.
In his early days, Michalak was the epitome of all things we consider French. His comeback should therefore come as no surprise when you consider that as is often the case with the French, you should always expect the unexpected.
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