Friday 15 December 2017

France fly-half Frédéric Michalak invokes the wisdom of Wilkinson ahead of English battle

Mick Cleary

Assailed by his critics, booed by the Stade de France crowd, France fly-half Frédéric Michalak has turned to one of England’s finest as he contemplates a trip to Twickenham for Saturday’s RBS Six Nations match against the Anglo-Saxon foe.

If you want to beat them then you have to get on their wavelength.

Michalak, under severe pressure for his place, is invoking the wisdom of his colleague at Toulon, Jonny Wilkinson, to get himself in the right frame of mind to take on the only undefeated side in the tournament. Michalak has gone native.

“We need the spirit of the Brits, someone to crack the whip over us,” said Michalak who joined Wilkinson on the Cote d’Azur last summer after signing a two-year deal.

“You know, we French, we dwell on things too much, go in on ourselves. Even the day before a match we are still going on about what happened the week before, getting all worked-up about things that are in the past.

"Jonny said to me: ‘You all talk too much.’ I said: ‘Welcome to France.’ Jonny has taught me the importance of moving on. Don’t look back. Look to the future. The key is to work hard no matter what has happened, good or bad. That is where the secret lies.”

Many used to flock to the court of Michalak for inspiration as if just being in the company of the gifted one would be enough to ingest some of his stardust. Those days are long gone, partly through injury, partly because Michalak, 30, went on his travels with two spells in South Africa at the Sharks where he played alongside England centre, Brad Barritt.

He is certainly a more rounded figure these days in his outlook, more mature, mellow even. The competitive instinct still burns. The losing streak and his own disjointed performances hurt.

Michalak, though, has a desire to experience more, to show that he is very much capable of playing at international level.

He won his 61st cap against Wales. It wasn’t a happy experience. Yet Michalak finds no fault with those in the crowd 10 days ago who whistled and jeered as France went down to their second successive defeat, their worst start to the tournament since 1982.

There are other alarming stats beginning to line-up in the dark margin of the consciousness. Perhaps France’s first wooden spoon since 1957?

“Remember, don’t look back,” said Michalak with a smile. “Of course we were not happy with what happened against Italy and Wales. The loss at home was particularly painful. It was normal for the people to react like that.

"That is their right. I understand that. We’re not in a good place in terms of our confidence. As for me, well, for sure, I want to play better. I want us to have a nice movement in our game. Perhaps some French flair, eh?”

Michalak is well aware that he might give way to Montpellier fly-half François Trinh-Duc when the team is named on Thursday. It would be easy to assume that his lack of game-time at fly-half this season might be an impediment. Michalak understudies Wilkinson at Toulon, often having to switch to scrum-half. Surely that makes it difficult to step into the No 10 shirt for a test match?

“I’ve been doing it all my life, switching between the positions, so it’s a bit late to start worrying about it now,” said Michalak with a shrug. “The modern game is much more interchangeable. You have to be comfortable on the field first and foremost, adaptable. “

If Michalak does get the nod, he intends to lead the line with assurance as well as touch. His kicking game has been wayward and France have been unable to exert much pressure through territory. Michalak is a generous individual, willing to praise the opposition even if there has been a fierce rivalry down the years. He has been impressed by Owen Farrell.

“He has a good attitude on the field, he is the boss, eh?” said Michalak, noting the influence of his former Sharks team-mate in that England midfield. “Brad will be doing a lot of work there. He talks and organises and makes sure everything is just right. He will be a big help.”

Michalak is one of only five in the 23-man France squad who has experienced victory at Twickenham, flanker Yannick Nyanga, wing, Vincent Clerc, prop, Nicolas Mas and hooker, Dimitri Szarzewski the others. The flavour of the rivalry has not diminished down the years.

“Yes, it is the special game of the tournament, the one to win,” said Michalak. “We have had some great moments, some disappointing ones, too. But the past is the past. England are impressive. They play some nice rugby. If they beat us, they will win the Grand Slam. They’ve got the team for that.”

And have France the team to beat England?

“Of course we do,” said Michalak. “We have all known too much of this sport to think otherwise. You must always have belief or you have nothing. For sure, we must show as we did in November when we played with desire and accuracy to beat Australia so well. For Twickenham, we have to have pride in our jersey, to play with heart.”

So, you have no intention of going there...

“To be what, mere supporters in the crowd?” interrupts Michalak with a laugh. “No, I can assure you of that. We are not going there just to watch England win. Not at all.”

Wilkinson himself would approve of that attitude.

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