France were home and hosed, their 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign off to a winning start and, though the performance had been frustrating, they had swatted the Italians aside, thanks, in no small part, to their out-half, who had contributed 19 points and concocted their first try for Rabah Slimani.
That assist was vintage Michalak. Gaining possession ten metres from the Italian goal-line and in traffic, he caught and dropped the ball to his shoe in the one movement, and dinked a delightful grubber for his prop, of all people, to pick up and touch down. “Freddy brings a lot of experience and a lot of calm,” said full-back, Scott Spedding. “He seems to always know what he is doing and he brings calm to the guys around him. That little grubber kick was an example of Freddy at his best. He can do stuff like that.”
Yet his exit was revealing. When the stadium announcer read out Michalak’s name, the French fans in the crowd of 76,232 saw him off with a lukewarm, polite applause that suggested they have been burned too often by their mercurial ten to be fully convinced just yet.
The same could be said of their team. Michalak had popped two straightforward penalties back off the post early in the first-half, but he was neither brilliant nor brutal on a night made difficult for tens by the error count on both sides and the ill-discipline that sucked the game of rhythm. “We want to play an attractive style of rugby, everyone does,” said Spedding. “It was our ambition to go out there and do that, but the first game in a World Cup brings a lot of pressure. Everyone is anxious, so maybe it wasn’t the easiest night to do that.” But Saturday was still a big night for Michalak. His personal haul took him to within three points of Thierry Lacroix’s tournament record of 124 for a Frenchman, just weeks after Michalak overtook Christophe Lamaison as the man who has scored the most points for France.
His five penalties and two conversions — Spedding added another three-pointer from halfway — were his first World Cup points in 12 years and continued his ongoing Test rehabilitation, after years spent abroad, out of favour or injured.
“I think I was the only one who believed that I could be here,” he said afterwards. “Only me and my wife and family — and sometimes they had doubts. But it’s not enough to be here, I want to win something.” France’s chances of that weren’t helped by the ACL ligament injury suffered by wing, Yoann Huget, while Italy centre, Andrea Masi, tore an Achilles tendon. Both are out of the tournament, and with Luca Morisi already at home, Italy look light in midfield.
Yet this was a game framed by the whistle. Referee Craig Joubert awarded 36 penalties, 19 of them against Italy, and a quartet against the Azzurri at the scrum. Their coach, Jacques Brunel, claimed that his players “didn’t really understand the referee”, whose decisions created an “imbalance” in the game.
And yet, for all the alleged infractions, not a single yellow card was shown.
The absence of their number eight and talismanic captain, Sergio Parisse, hardly helped Italy either, though one Italian journalist made the case to Brunel that these were excuses for a performance against a French side that was hardly on fire itself. “That’s your opinion,” snapped Brunel, in response.
His French counterpart, Philippe Saint-Andre, had his own gripes with the officiating. His centred on Italy’s presence on and over the offside line at the ruck, but he nonetheless congratulated the opposition on their ability to slow France’s play down. The ploy meant that France seldom got their game flowing. Noah Nakaitici did touch down ten minutes in, but the effort was disallowed dramatically by the TMO, just as Michalak stood over the conversion attempt, in a repeat of the Nikola Matawalu incident on Friday, between Fiji and England.
Imperfect though they were, France were clearly superior, with number eight, Louis Picamoles, the standout on the night and they led 25-3 before Giovanbattista Venditti punched over for a converted try, with half an hour to go. Nicolas Mas only belatedly added France’s second try a minute from time, with Saint-Andre and Spedding among those dismissing concerns about their fitness, as a result.
“Rustiness,” was the latter’s take. Pool D isn’t likely to be decided on bonus points, but France’s failure to come even close to it, against an Italian team shorn of two of their best players, and one destroyed in the scrum, bodes well for Ireland, ahead of what is likely to be their crunch meeting in Cardiff.
“We know we could do better, but our objective is to look to the next game, against Romania,” said Saint-Andre. “That is the important bit. We would have liked the bonus point. We didn’t manage it, but we won. Full stop. Let’s look forward.”
S Spedding; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, A Dumoulin, N Nakaitaci; F Michalak, S Tillous-Borde; E Ben Arous, G Guirado, R Slimani; P Pape, Y Maestri; T Dusatoir, D Chouly, L Picamoles.
G Fickou for Huget (55); M Parra for Tillous-Borde (57); B Kayser for Guirado and V Debaty for Ben Arous (both 61); N Mas for Slimani (63); B Le Roux for Picamoles (66); A Flanquart for Maestri (69); R Tales for Michalak (76).
L McLean; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, A Masi, G Venditti; T Allen, E Gori; M Aquero, L Ghiraldini, M Castrogiovanni; Q Geldenhuys, J Furno; A Zanni, F Minto, S Vunisa.
E Bacchin for Masi (11); L Cittadini for Castrogiovanni and M Rizzo for Aquero (50); S Favaro for Minto (62); A Manici for Ghiraldini (63); G Palazzari for Gori (64); V Bernabo for Furno (72); C Canna for Allen (80).
C Joubert (South Africa).