Frédéric Michalak embracing chance to build lasting legacy
Toulon outhalf has resurrected a career that has long mixed the flaky with flawless
Frédéric Michalak in action for Toulon against Wasps in the quarter-final of the European Champions Cup. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Just watch his body language, just watch him walking back. This is like your granddad playing outhalf . . . I can’t believe France don’t have a better number 10 in the whole country – Clive Woodward during the 2013 Six Nations. Some easy descriptions for Frédéric Michalak: a playboy, a male model, flaky. But people change. Of late he must be called a father, a veteran, reliable. Eight from eight kicks at goal in the Champions Cup quarter-final dismissal of Wasps confirms the last one.
And anyway, most men only truly evolve when enveloped by their thirties. This certainly applies to athletes as their sporting mortality creeps into view.
Michalak is 32 now. In his prime. Problem is mud sticks, or in this case cement dries. Everyone seems to remember Trevor Brennan’s bricklayer story. It’s the ultimate cautionary tale why one should never tangle with a single man with too much time on his hands.
In 2006 some Toulouse team-mates conspired to teach Freddie a lesson, dumping the contents of his bag on the carousel when returning from Llanelli. Put deep heat in his boots as well. When stuff started to go missing retaliation was unavoidable. Safety in numbers was the mob mentality so Michalak adopted the Michael Corleone form of revenge – when in doubt bring the anvil down on all possible enemies.
Waiting until the fishes were asleep, Michalak filled his car boot with ready-made cement, concrete bricks and bags of dirt and rubble.
“Freddie started at 2am,” wrote Brennan in his autobiography, “ . . . because it was a very foggy night, he began to think he had the wrong house and instead went next door where he built a five-foot wall. Garba [Xavier Garbajosa] came out and saw an unfinished two-foot wall outside his front door, but then saw the trail of footprints through the garden to his neighbour’s house leading all the way to a five-foot wall in front of his neighbour’s door.”
Three more teammates were treated to similar punishment from the night haunting. “I’m a single lad with no kids and no responsibilities,” he told the dressing room the next day. “Do what you like, but I’ll always get you back.”
People do change. Michalak took an oddly adventurous turn when heading off to play Super Rugby with the Natal Sharks in 2008, falling in love with an Australian woman and starting a family, only to be lured home for one last run in a national jersey and one of those Mourad Boudjellal contracts.
A man of many faces then, one of them will forever be the bricklayer’s son from a tough working-class Toulouse upbringing who scaled the top of the citadel, fell to earth, but possessed a solid enough foundation to keep climbing.
“In 2003 Fréd’s life changed,” remembers journalist Arnaud David. “He became the first French rugby player to be a pop star. It was difficult to cope with that. He was really young and not surrounded by lawyers and clever people to help him. There was a bloke, Fréd Michalak, who was a genius in his youth, then there was a bloke who became one of the most mediocre players in the history of French rugby, and suddenly Freddie is back and he has been superb recently.
“He has a strong personality, he is very thoughtful, you can still see the kid in him. He is more down to earth than before.”
The teenager who broke into the Toulouse side as a scrumhalf in 2001 promised so much. “He had balls,” Arnaud remembers. “And easily slipped from nine to ten.”
Many calamitous outings followed. Like the 2003 World Cup semi-final. After orchestrating victory over Ireland, landing nine from nine off the tee and two cross field kicks which yielded tries, he provided the antithesis for Jonny Wilkinson. The rain drowned him out, forcing Bernard Laporte, a constant figure throughout his career, to withdraw the most important man in the French side after he landed just one from five kicks. Wilkinson’s 22 points guided England into the final. Their paths diverged for nine years.
Perhaps Michalak’s darkest hour came in victory. In the 2006 Six Nations encounter against Ireland, France raced into a 43-3 lead before a dramatic revival, or capitulation, brought matters back to 43-31. The Parisians were disgusted, turning on Freddie as he was, again, replaced by his coach. Afterwards Laporte defended his player, branding the crowd “Ces bourgeois de merde”. Posh, ignorant shits.
Laporte doesn’t necessarily trust him though. Michalak is accidentally filling Wilkinson’s boots this season. Juan Hernández and Leigh Halfpenny were recruited as playmaker and place kicker to cover the Englishman’s retirement.
Halfpenny’s recovery from concussion and a shoulder injury sustained last week against Grenoble should relieve him of place-kicking responsibilities. Also, Sébastien Tillous-Borde directs most of the heavy traffic from scrumhalf, leaving Michalak and Matt Giteau to unleash Toulon’s world class three quarters.
So utterly unlike Wilkinson in manner, attitude, concentration and certainly career path, they are comparable only by staying power. Quade Cooper is coming to Toulon next but the club has provided an Indian summer that could conceivably lead to a 72nd French cap.
But his limitations remain. A renegade outhalf, his dodgy kicking game and control of a tight contest are offset by an ability to create space when surrounded by ogres. Still, the return from South Africa in 2012 led to a recall by Philippe Saint André and France’s most successful period under the former winger’s disastrous national reign.
Onlookers believed Michalak was finally fulfilling his potential and would be France’s number 10 for the 2015 World Cup. But he had played a lot of rugby without a break. Injury, coupled with a sloppy showing throughout the 2013 Six Nations, including the draw in Dublin, seems to have ended his international days.
In Toulon he was never been first choice – it was Wilkinson and Sebastien Tillous-Borde – until now. Sunday represents Michalak’s last chance to rewrite his legacy. This moment comes because of a near flawless showingagainst Wasps two weeks ago. “He should not have played,” said David. “Bernard Laporte wanted to play Juan Hernández at 10 but he had a small injury.”
On 50 minutes, Michalak chips a free kick skyward for Bakkies Botha to gather, making 15 metres and front-foot ball. Maxime Mermoz crashes it up. Wide goes the play, where Michalak supplies the meat between two heavy runs by the Armitage brothers, gently linking play like a small point guard under the rim.
At the death he landed a touchline conversion. Just how suffocating was the Wasps challenge is debatable. Perhaps a club living off former glories. Not unlike the next challenge.
Leinster are glad to see Michalak at 10. Fréddie’s history for folding immediately after dominating is renowned. Like 2003. “Leinster have a chance because of Michalak,” David agrees. “It’s easier to play Toulon with Michalak than Jonny Wilkinson.”
There was a guarantee of excellence with Wilkinson but uncertainty can kill you as well. The outhalf with a flawed pedigree might cost Toulon but the imperfections are what make this man seem so complete. Beware the intercept. The bottler has learned to trust his natural talent when the walls threaten to crumble around him.
Rugby, that is, not bricklaying.