RYAN VREDE writes Frederic Michalak has emerged as a central figure in the Sharks’ drive to the Super Rugby title.
The Sharks are finally starting to see an expected return on their significant investment in the 29-year-old Frenchman, who arrived in 2008 and has had a regular association with the franchise since. Some would question the accuracy of that assertion, arguing that he was instrumental in leading them to the 2008 Currie Cup title and was key in their surge to the final last year.
However, you don’t recruit a player of his calibre and standing to win domestic prizes. It should be a pleasant by-product of having his ilk at your disposal. Fundamentally, Michalak was brought in to help the Sharks end their Super Rugby drought. And now, after a series of inspiring performances since being installed at flyhalf about halfway through their campaign, he is on the cusp of doing just that.
Michalak’s aptitude for Super Rugby was displayed in 2008 before he seriously injured his knee and missed the remainder of the tournament. Certainly he was still adjusting to some of the tournament’s unique demands, particularly against elite opposition, but he always seemed comfortable fit.
Now, after being granted an extended run (somewhat fortuitously in light of an injury to Pat Lambie) Michalak is thriving. His performance against the Stormers on Saturday was composed, intelligent and near faultless in execution. This was in keeping with the expectation of a 56-Test veteran and a player who has won a French Top 14 championship and two European Cups (with Toulouse). The Sharks must hope Michalak displays those qualities in an even higher measure come Saturday.
That said, it would be remiss to ignore the correlation between his impressive form and the upswing in the forwards’ displays. Sterile and impotent for half the tournament, the heavies were then galavanised by the return from injury of Beast Mtawarira, Willem Alberts and to a lesser extent, Ryan Kankowski. Michalak has subsequently had a platform that would be the envy of all 10s.
And he has taken full advantage, orchestrating attacks with consummate skill and sharp decision making, while also giving them an unpredictable dimension with his natural flair. It is incumbent upon his forwards to best the Chiefs’ powerful pack in general and set play in order to give him a reasonable opportunity to engineer the victory they so desperately crave.
With a taxing travel schedule that has seen them clock up nearly 35000 km in the last three weeks, there are legitimate questions about their capacity to achieve this.
Sharks coach John Plumtree has spoken of his players’ deeply rooted self-belief and their refusal to allow fatigue to be used as an excuse for failure to play at their optimum level. Plumtree’s coach-speak is admirable but rests on the hope that the Sharks’ forwards in particular will have something left after their heroic performance at Newlands.
If they do, Michalak, on current form, has the potential to be the fulcrum around which a Sharks victory is built.