Freddie’s back at No10 and Les Bleus have scored 94 points in three games in front of clamourous home crowds, hammering the Wallabies 33-6 before gutting the Pumas 39-19, then breaking down a super-physical Samoan challenge to ride out 22-14 winners and end their series undefeated. Something is very, very right with French rugby at the moment. That isn’t a good advent for Ireland, but it does wonders for the rugby world as a whole.
Seemingly irreplaceable players like reigning IRB International Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir, Imanol Harinordoquy, Dmitri Yachvilli, Yannick Jauzion, William Servat and Aurelien Rougerie – six of the best Europe has seen over the last decade – turned out not to be quite as irreplaceable as The Mole thought they’d prove to be.
That’s not to suggest that those who have come in to fill their jerseys over the last three weeks are better players, or even that as individuals they can consistently perform on the same level as those aforementioned greats, but it seemed likely that they’d struggle to fill the talent void … and instead we’ve born witness to a better-organised, more motivated and winning-er French team than we’ve seen in quite a while.Dusautoir will return and bring his unrivalled intensity, tackling ability and big-match temperament, and it’s still too early to write off the twin 32-year old Biarritz geniuses Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordoquy, but the performances of Dusautoir’s Toulouse team-mate Yannick Nyanga [in the international wilderness for more than five years before his Australian test recall], Racing’s Maxime Machenaud and – perhaps most impressively – Louis Picamoles were key features of the French run of victories.
PSA Putting His Mark On His Team
Philippe Saint-André’s first Six Nations in charge was conservative and unconvincing, but coming in directly after a World Cup – even though his appointment was ratified before that tournament had kicked off – meant that he had no time to put his stamp on the team before they were playing competitive rugby. He had no summer tour away from the close attention of the French rugby press, and he had no November internationals where he could experiment with untried players in a non-tournament environment with little at stake. He had two options: do his experimenting during his first Six Nations as head coach, or stick with the team that had come within a breath of winning the World Cup four months earlier.
Lievremont had been a tinkerman for the ages with his approach to selection, and had been indulged in his first few seasons after eight long years under Bernie Le Fou. However, after a while the public appetite to indulge a coach who seemed not to know his best team was sated. One would imagine that not only did PSA not want to dirty his bib in the same manner, but that he had been sitting there on the proverbial sideline, watching Lievremont fumble around and f*ck it up … and all the while had a very firm idea in his head about what he would have done with that talented group of players over the last four years.
I’m Not Talking About Dance Lessons. I’m Talking About Putting A Brick Through The Other Guy’s Windshield. I’m Talking About Taking It Out And Chopping It Up.
Something that was very noticeable in the Samoan game was how the French pack relished the physical challenge that the big South Sea Islanders posed. The Welsh got bashed up and went into their shells in the Millennium Stadium the previous week, but the French kept on upping the ante. They loved it.
The Top 14 is the toughest domestic league in the world, a ‘manupathon’ in the words of current Leinster and former Clermont coach Joe Schmidt. With their two professional leagues and a host of semi-pro teams competing in the Federale 1, the structure of French club rugby is very different to that of the Celtic game. For one thing, there’s massive depth, with talented young players often starting for their local team at a very young age before being lured to one of the Top 14 clubs. For example, Toulouse “lifer” Yannick Jauzion started with the tiny Sporting Club Graulhétois as a teenager, before moving to US Colomiers for four seasons and only then pitching up at the Stade Ernst Wallon. Dusautoir started at Trellissac, before moving on to Périgaux; Florian Fritz kicked off at Sens, before moving to Villeurbonne and then Bourgoin … I could go on and on.
There are a lot of pro teams around at different levels, which means that players who develop at different stages are accommodated; you don’t necessarily have to be an underage superstar to play pro rugby in France, as you do in Ireland. Props can learn their trade at their local club, get spotted by a scout from a nearby Federale outfit, then have a few years as a semi-pro before a team from the ProD2 or the Top14 needs a front-rower for the coming season and comes a-calling.Thus you have an absolute throwback like Castre’s Yannick Forestier barging his way into the French front row as a 30-year old. Forestier looks like a lad who works down the docks and would gut you like a fish if you looked at him wrong … and he plays how he looks. He’s not a physically huge man, but his scrummaging abilities hark back to the glory days of Louis Armary and Laurent Seigne.
One of the beauties of the French game, and of Philippe Saint-André’s selection – although it’s admittedly something of an aside – is that you get the David Ginola-esque Dmitri Szarzewski coming on as a sub and putting himself about with every bit of aggression as Forestier. Szarzewski was first capped as a 21-year old, has amassed more than sixty caps before his thirtieth birthday and is a flash harry who has spent the majority of his career washing his hair and turning out for the nouveau riche clubs of Paris. He’s one of the chosen ones. In theory, he couldn’t be more different than Forestier, who has had to work himself up through the ranks with a relatively unfashionable club, and has only recently been acknowledged with a test cap. In practice though, both Forestier and Szarzewski share the same mindset. They’re nails.
Morgan Parra’s a tough little bastard too, as are Vincent Clerc and Florian Fritz. Being tough is still a big part of French club rugby; you just don’t survive if you’re not.
… And The Return Of Fab Five Freddie
Which leads us to one of the great survivors of French rugby, Freddie Michalak. Freddie must be on at least his third act now, having arrived into the team just after his twenty-first birthday way back in November 2001. Those were the dog days of Bernie le Fou, and Michalak briefly featured at scrum-half inside Gerald Merceron during the 2002 Six Nations before he was axed to make way for Fabien Galthié – though only after Pierre Mignoni had had a shot at the No9 jersey too.
However, Merceron got the chop himself after the first game of the 2003 Six Nations, where despite outscoring England three tries to one, the ASM general could only convert one kick at goal … to Jonny Wilkinson’s seven. Ouch. Francois Gelez of Agen was given the reins, and lead les Bleus to a facile victory over Scotland in his first outing. However, he didn’t last longer than his next match, a 15-12 loss to Ireland in Lansdowne Road. Freddie finally got his chance to shine in the No10 shirt, and shine he did, orchestrating a 57-23 thumping of Italy in Rome and a 33-5 humbling of Wales in Paris, and bagging a try in each game for good measure.
From then until the RWC03 semi-final against England, he set the rugby world alight from No10. We all know how that ended, and unfortunately it wasn’t pretty. However, he was back in the saddle for four of the five games [missing the game against Italy, when Julien Peyrelongue wore the No10 jersey] of the 2004 Six Nations when, for the second time in three years, France won the Grand Slam, though in an erosion of his standing in the team, upon his return his place-kicking duties were assumed by either Dimitri Yachvili or Jean Baptiste Elissalde – or whoever was at scrum-half on the day. It seemed like they’d have preferred Serge Betsen taking the kicks at goal to Michalak.
If you’ve been first-choice place-kicker for your country and lose the role, it’s a blow to your self-confidence and your standing amongst your peers. Freddie lost further credibility when a strong French team were turned over in Marseille – long a stronghold – in November 2004 by an Argentine outfit who were beginning the big build towards their first rate showing in RWC07. He had to hand over the No10 jersey to Yann Delaigue for the 2005 Six Nations, but again forced his way back into the team for the summer tour, and essentially held the jersey [although not the placekicking duties] until the end of the 2006 Six Nations, which France again won … though without slamming, grandly or otherwise. However, he buggered his knee playing for Toulouse in a game against Bourgoin in November 2006 and missed the 2007 Six Nations, with David Skrela and Stade’s Lionel Beauxis being selected in his absence.
Laporte picked all three outhalves in his RWC07 squad: Skrela was selected for the tournament opener against Argentina, which the hosts promptly lost, and while Freddie oversaw the crucial 25-3 victory over Ireland that sealed France’s qualification for the quarter-finals, 21 year old Lionel Beauxis started the last game of the pool stages against the Georgians and turned in a bravura 24 point performance which saw him retained for the epic quarter-final against New Zealand. However, it was Michalak who was to have the decisive role to play in that game when he was introduced off the bench late in the second half:
Despite winning one of the games of the decade against a heavily-favoured New Zealand team, once again the French tumbled out at the semi-final stage to a Jonny Wilkinson-inspired England. Quel dommage!
Post-World Cup, Michalak followed in the footsteps of Thierry Lacroix and set off to Durban to represent the Sharks in the 2008 Super 14 and enjoy a full season of Currie Cup rugby with Natal – and one that culminated in victory – before taking a short break and returning to Toulouse in November of the 2008-09 northern hemisphere season. It meant that he missed the 2008 Six Nations, Mark Lievremont’s first tournament in charge of the national side. Despite approaching his prime [he turned 26 in October 2008] he initially couldn’t find a way into Lievremont’s plans; Lievremont was keen on distancing himself from the ancien regime and forging his own tradition, and that meant a new outhalf, Francois Trinh-Duc.
However, by the time of the 2010 Six Nations Michalak had worked his way back into the peripheries of the French squad, appearing in a number of games off the bench [at scrum-half, outhalf and centre] before disaster struck in early March in a Top 14 game between Toulouse and Stade and he suffered a severe knee injury that was to keep him off the pitch for almost a year.
He returned for Toulouse mid-way through the 2010-11 season, but David Skrela was enjoying a late-career surge in his absence, and things didn’t click as they had before. Injuries kept him out of the team for the denouement of the season, and after contract negotiations broke down with the club where he had started his professional career as an 18 year old, days later he answered an SOS from his old South African clubmates at the Sharks – who had been hit by an injury crisis at scrumhalf – and flew south to help them finish out the 2011 Super Rugby season. This was shortly after a massive semi-final win against Clermont Auvergne in late May that saw Toulouse into a Bouclier de Brennus tilt with Montpellier, but he left before the final, cutting his ties emphatically. It seemed like that was the end of the story for France and Freddie: one stint in South Africa could be explained as curiosity, a second could only be regarded as voluntary exile.
He stuck around Durban for the next year too , and had an exceptional season for both the Sharks and Natal, playing in 34 games [28 starts] and seeing the former into the final of the Super 15 and the latter to the final of the Currie Cup. While both finals were lost [the Sharks were heavily beaten by a rampant Chiefs in the Super Rugby final, 37-6, while Natal lost out in a tight game to Western Province, 25-18] it’s difficult to categorise that season as anything other than an enormous success, especially in contrast to the two he had recently undergone in Toulouse.
Curiously though, before the southern hemisphere season had even kicked off, Mourad Boudjellal had gone public with a statement that Freddie would be returning to France, and more specifically to his club Toulon, Toulouse’s old rivals. In a further twist, he announced that Freddie would be considered solely as a scrum-half.
Before he had played a match for les Toulonnais though, Michalak had been selected by Saint-André for France’s June 2012 tour of Argentina. With Trinh-Duc at outhalf, a strong French side were narrowly [but surprisingly] beaten in Cordoba by an understrength Pumas team marshaled by Felipe Contepomi; Freddie came on after an hour to replace the Montpellier general, and obviously did enough to turn Saint-André’s head, as he earned the starting No10 berth for the next test in Tucuman.
In his first start for France in almost five years [his last start had been the third and fourth place game of RWC07, coincidentally against the same opposition], Michalak ran a masterclass, kicking 19 points in a 6-try, 49-10 demolition of the Pumas.
Since his return to the starting line-up, it has seemed like the clock has been wound back nine years; Michalak is placekicking, running a free-scoring French backline and averaging a personal total of more than 19 points per game. To emphasise the extent of his contribution, his personal tally would have beaten the opposition in all four games in which he has started since his return. He has been in wonderful form, and has sparked the most coherent and consistent French play that The Mole has seen since … well, probably since before the Lievremont era. That might seem harsh on the team that won a Grand Slam in 2010, but it’s hard to forget their final-match jitters against England in Paris, when they tried repeatedly to throw away the game against an Ongultehra team that had lost at home to Ireland, been held to a draw by Scotland and scraped a narrow win in Rome.
Seeing his name on the shortlist for IRB International Player of the Year cause a fair amount of raised eye-brows and grumblings, and while The Mole wouldn’t have had him ahead of the omitted Kieran Read, Conrad Smith or Juan-Martin Fernandez Lobbe, I’m still delighted for him. Vive la France! Vive Le Freddie!
England’s remarkable victory over the All Black has tilted the rugby world off its axis without adequate time for rebuttal before the close of the year. Understandably, it has overshadowed the achievements [and failures] of the rest of the Six Nations unions, whether they be embarrassing slumps – a home loss to Tonga is a new low for Scotland – or tantalising glimpses of the future, namely Ireland’s demolition of Argentina.
While the French have to visit Twickenham this season, where they have regularly struggled against even mediocre English sides, they have been the most consistent of the Northern Hemisphere sides over November. Granted, they didn’t have to face the protein-fuelled grunt of the Springbok pack, or a non-norovirus poxed All Black outfit, but Samoa is a far more difficult [rather than just physically tougher] match than most will give credit for. The Samoan set-pieces have improved beyond all recognition – the scrummaging of both Johnston brothers hit the mark past ‘Brutally Effective’ on the Dengra dial – and the play of their half-backs Kahn Fotuali’i and Tusi Pisi was of the highest international quality; on any given day, they look like they could knock over any team in the world. Suffice it to say that if the IRFU had organised a fixture against Samoa, rather than Fiji, Irish fans would have a distinctly less sunny take on the Autumn Internationals.
Likewise, while Ireland did a number on Argentina in the last game of their longest ever season, the Pumas came to France on the back of a very convincing win over the Grand Slamming Welsh and were full of confidence; they’re a good team, even if they did look absolutely fagged out by the final whistle in Dublin. After a heavy loss to France, the Australians have knocked over both England and Wales on their respective home patches; again, the Wallabies are not a bad team. So, while England have stolen the headlines with a late rush, The Mole would contend that French form has been more solid. It all points towards another unpredictable Six Nations experience all round, and with a Lions tour to cap it all off in June 2013, this could be a cracker of a tournament.