He is widely regarded as the one player who can make or break France at this World Cup, but Frederic Michalak will not be singled out for any more attention than normal when Ireland face their Six Nations rivals in their last World Cup Pool D assignment this Sunday.
So says Sean O’Brien, though the Ireland openside – for whom terrorising the opposing 10 is an integral part of his brief – did admit that both Michalak and Jonathan Sexton will both expect a close-up examination in the Millennium Stadium.
Much has already been made this week of how Matheiu Bastareaud launched his almost 19 stone frame down the out-half’s channel at every opportunity last February when the Irishman was just recently returned from a concussion sabbatical, but Sexton withstood the heat.
Michalak’s weakness has always been deemed to be more mental than physical, but if O’Brien and the rest of the Ireland back row in particular can play in his face, it will be fascinating to see how the Toulon playmaker responds.
“You would like to put pressure on every fly-half,” said O’Brien yesterday at Ireland’s Celtic Manor base outside Newport ahead of a light training session yesterday. “I’m sure they will be thinking the same, to put pressure on Johnny.
“(Michalak) is someone who is a very dangerous player for them. He is one of their leaders of the rest of them around how they want to play, so we will surely try and put pressure on him and at times try and squeeze him up a little bit.”
That Michalak is hit-and-miss as a 10 is undeniable even if it was most obvious all of 12 years ago when he was magnificent in France’s quarter-final defeat of Ireland in Melbourne and then atrocious in the semi-final against England in Sydney. Two games, one week, two very different Michalaks.
It is less than six months since O’Brien and the rest of the Leinster contingent in Joe Schmidt’s squad saw for themselves how low he can go when Michalak was hauled off by Bernard Laporte after only 48 minutes of Toulon’s Rugby Champions Cup semi-final with Leinster in Marseille. It was an ignominious exit though O’Brien didn’t seem to think that Leinster had played any unique part in his demise beyond frustrating a superb Toulon team whom they took to extra-time.
“No, there was nothing particular. If you go after someone like that, someone with his skill level and intelligence, you know he will probably cause you more problems if you are zoning in on him the whole time. So it is about being collective around a player as dangerous as him.”
France will no doubt say the same about their approach to Sexton, who Richie Murphy admitted probably isn’t “overly happy with his performance”, against Italy, though the assistant coach believes the prospect of facing Bastareaud is not one that will give him any moments of anguish.
“I don’t think he’ll be focused on that at all,” said Murphy who knows Sexton better t han most. “Johnny is well used to playing in France, he’s well used to being targeted as an out-half at international level. He’ll get on and do the job that he has to do.
“If he’s concentrating on what they’re going to do to him, well, he’s on the wrong track. He has to focus on our game and how he’s going to run our game and put us in a good position to put in a good performance this week.”
Sexton should be joined by a fit-again Rob Kearney (glute) and Jared Payne (bruised foot). Both missed the win over Italy, but took part in a light walk-through session yesterday and are expected to participate fully in a more rigorous practice today.
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