Freddie’s happy affair

MIKE GREENAWAY finds out why Frédéric Michalak decided to rekindle his relationship with the Sharks.

There was something quintessentially French about Frédéric Michalak’s exit from the rugby club he had played for since he was seven and his arrival in KwaZulu-Natal towards the end of Super Rugby.

‘It is the end of a love affair, the heart breaks, but a new affair begins,’ he said of his departure from his beloved Toulouse. ‘Durban was kind to me when I moved there in 2008 [for a sabbatical from Toulouse] and I did a lot of growing up, so when the phone call came from the Sharks it felt right to return and make a home there.’

He has signed for the Sharks for 15 months but says he could well stay longer.

The 28-year-old was at the end of his contract with Toulouse in June and the Sharks had injury concerns at scrumhalf, with Conrad Hoffmann ruled out with a serious elbow injury. Michalak has started at No 9 in some of his 55 Tests and is equally at home at flyhalf, so his recall to Durban made a whole lot of sense, not just for the final weeks of Super Rugby but mostly for the Currie Cup given that Pat Lambie will be with the Springboks.

After the over-the-top hype that cloaked the French icon’s arrival in Durban in 2008, his return has been almost comically subdued. Three years ago Michalak engendered an entourage that would normally be associated with a pop star. Two French TV crews and three newspapers were in his wake; he was accompanied for the first fortnight by his agent, who he described as his ‘sister’ but was no blood relation, and he conducted interviews with local media through a translator (it was handy indeed that one of the secretaries at the Sharks is a French-speaking Swiss).

Leading French sports paper L’Equipe assigned a reporter and photographer to cover the then 25-year-old’s entire three-month Super 14 visit, including the Sharks’ overseas tour, and the embarrassed Michalak was endlessly ribbed by his team-mates about his ‘double shadow’.

Three years later he is blissfully unencumbered, the defences against the media he had constructed are down and he proves to be a humble soul – disarming, ingenuous, unfailingly polite. And his dramatically improved English resonates with that melodic French accent that English-speakers find so charming.

Much of that is due to a delightful, romantic legacy of his 2008 visit. One of his better friends at the time was team-mate Waylon Murray, who introduced him to the cousin of a girl he was dating at the time.

Her name was Cindy and she was visiting relatives in Durban (her family had emigrated to Australia when she was eight months old).

‘Later that season the Sharks went to Sydney and we spent time together …’ he says. ‘She came to stay with me when I returned to Toulouse. She has obviously helped me with English and she is speaking good French.’

They were married in December. Cindy is finishing a contract at a bank in London and was set to join her husband at the end of July.

‘She is really getting excited about living in the place of her birth. We have been “gypsies” for a while [Toulouse, London and now Durban], so we are looking forward to settling down in Durban.’

The dimming media attention for Michalak in France has as much to do with the flyhalf currently being out of favour with the French selectors as it does with his lifestyle assuming more sedate proportions.

After making his debut for France as a debonair 19-year-old he quickly became a phenomenon off the field. He posed nude for Citizen K (a luxury fashion magazine) and Dieux du Stade (The Stadium Gods, a highly popular annual calendar produced by French club Stade Français).

In Europe, a poll undertaken by leading women’s magazines had him as the second most desirable sportsman after David Beckham. He also became a gay icon.

By his mid-20s, he was earning a fortune advertising everything from luxury watches to condoms, but the unrelenting media glare took its toll.

‘A lot happened quickly for me and some of the decisions I made should be taken in the context of my age at the time,’ he says.  ‘All the calendars, the advertisements,  the posters … you try things, you make mistakes but I regret none of it because they were experiences and part of growing up,’ he reflects. ‘When you are 20, 21 you do things once for the experiment – it is just much harder to get away from certain things when you do your growing up in the spotlight.

‘What happens is that you do something once and the media seizes on it and they say that is who you are. For instance, you go to a nightclub once and suddenly that is all you do.’

There was one episode in particular that the media dined out on and it remains a great rugby story. Michalak and his childhood friend Clément Poitrenaud were youthful newcomers in the French national squad and at one lunch session in camp they were teasing the captain, Fabian Pelous, by tossing bits of bread at him. He was not impressed and when they continued after he asked them to stop, Michalak suddenly found a fork embedded in his hand.

‘It’s a true story. We were being childish. I can laugh about it now, but it hurt. He was not playing. The fork just stayed there stuck in my hand, quivering!’

Michalak was portrayed as something of an enfant terrible in the French media, despite it being clear to anybody who has spent time with him that there is not a pretentious bone in his body. In fact, he is shy.

‘An important thing I have realised as I have grown up is that the only time you are truly innocent is when you are a child. It is why I love children. They are the purest humans. They don’t have any agendas, they don’t want something from you,’ he says. ‘When the time is right I want as many
kids as possible.’

He didn’t have the easiest childhood, himself. He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in the industrial side of Toulouse. One of four children, his parents had an acrimonious divorce and he lived with his bricklayer dad, with ‘no rules’ in the house, so he pretty much did as he pleased. Rugby, though, gave him some direction and discipline.

Michalak clearly is an emotional and passionate person. His body is covered with tattoos, each with a special significance.

‘My friend JP Pietersen tells me that I look like a newspaper! But these are reminders to me of special things in my life.’

For instance, an Arabic script down his left shoulder is in remembrance of a friend who died in 2003. Another symbolises his friendship with the same group of mates he grew up with.

Michalak says his colourful rugby career parallels his life.

‘You win trophies, you lose finals – there is ecstasy and despair. Off the field it is the same …’

– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine. The September issue – a 260-page World Cup special – will be on sale from 24 August.