Enigmatic Michalak restored to outhalf
Frédéric Michalak (centre) will start at outhalf against Ireland. Photograph: Jacky Naeglen/Reuters
As was suspected prior to his team announcement yesterday, Philippe Saint-André has restored Frédéric Michalak to outhalf for Saturday’s meeting with Ireland at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 5pm) at the expense of François Trinh-Duc in one of three changes to the French backline.
The introduction of the enigmatic Michalak appeared to be one of several replacements that backfired on Saint-André at Twickenham a fortnight ago, along with removing Morgan Parra and Thomas Domingo from scrumhalf and loosehead, even if it subsequently became known Parra could no longer take place kicks due to a slight groin strain.
English coach Stuart Lancaster subsequently revealed his view that England found it easier to defend against France after the switch at out-half, and many French observers maintained the French coach should have made a straight swap at scrumhalf, where Michalak has been employed by Toulon all season.
But like a dog with a bone Saint-André is sticking with the outhalf who scored 77 points in four successive wins over Argentina (twice), Australia and Samoa last year.
Michalak’s form appeared to suffer from playing non-stop for over a year due to his 16-match stint in Super 15 rugby with the Sharks but yesterday Saint-André maintained: “I know that he has been playing for nearly one year but he hasn’t been playing much in the last three weeks. He’s fresh and he’s my number one, so it’s natural for him to come back.”
The French management have also made little secret of their unhappiness with Trinh-Duc’s defence in Twickenham. “I don’t want to talk about this,” said Saint-André. “I’ve talked to François about what’s wrong and I think he knows it from what he’s been saying to the press and, yes, he missed three important tackles in Twickenham.”
Nevertheless, it seems harsh on Trinh-Duc, who was also picked upon by Marc Lievrement during the World Cup when the decision to convert Parra into an ill-fitting outhalf arguably did little for his international career.
The perming of Parra and Michalak means France will be fielding a third different half-back combination in four games.
Elsewhere, the return of Florian Fritz along with Maxime Médard in an all-Toulouse back four to go with an all-Toulouse backrow, is a nod toward the threat of Brian O’Driscoll.
Acutely aware that this could be the great man’s last Irish appearance on home soil, and that “he could do something special” to mark the occasion according to Saint-André, Fritz’s selection is also due to his superior defence over the relatively one-dimensional Mathieu Bastaureaud.
“I’m sure that there is a lot of frustration in the Irish camp and it will be a very special ambience because it might be Brian O’Driscoll’s last game in Lansdowne Road,” said Saint-André.
France brought a very potent scrum and accurate lineout to Twickenham and although there had been a feeling that a tired-looking Nicolas Mas might be rested, the retention of the pack en bloc is an acknowledgement of their set-piece strength.
FRANCE: (v Ireland, Aviva Stadium, tomorrow): Y Huget; V Clerc, F Fritz, W Fofana, M Medard; F Michalak, M Parra; T Domingo, B Kayser, N Mas, C Samson, Y Maestri, Y Nyanga, T Dusautoir (capt), L Picamoles. Replacements: G Guirado, V Debaty, L Ducalcon, S Vahaamahina, A Claassen, M Machenaud, F Trinh-Duc, M Bastareaud.