Freddie Michalak’s flair gives Sharks the edge

2008-02-25 00:00

It was a dark weekend for South Africa’s Super 14 teams, with the Sharks the only one of five teams to pick up a win.

Super 14 champions the Bulls, and the Lions, were both given 50-point thumpings by New Zealand teams. The Cheetahs played the perfect hosts by gifting the Force victory in injury time. and the Stormers lost 10-12 to the Sharks on a sultry Saturday evening in Durban.

Sharks coach Dick Muir was happy and relieved to pick up a second successive win, one that has left them third to the Crusaders and the Auckland Blues on the log, but he was not satisfied with the rugby played.

"Our Super 14 is on track, but we are not producing the rugby we should be," said Muir after the Sharks turned a 0-10 half-time deficit into a 12-10 win.

"We need to win with a good deal more style. We only played the way we can in the last 20 minutes."

Significantly, the Sharks looked far more effective in the closing stages when they had their replacements on the field and were playing their familiar direct brand of rugby.

And therein lies Muir’s problem. French Test flyhalf Frederic Michalak made his Super 14 debut for the Sharks and immediately revealed his sublime passing, handling and kicking skills. He also did not shun the dirty work and made one crucial tackle when he ran in Peter Grant from behind as his opposite number broke away.

But the Frenchman’s strengths are in direct contrast to those of the players around him.

While Michalak looks for space and takes the ball wide, away from the heavy traffic, his midfield (Brad Barritt and Waylon Murray) and fullback Frans Steyn are far more physical and direct in approach as they seek to breach the gainline.

Michalak, on a couple of occasions, created overlap situations only to find his outside runners cutting back and running into tacklers.

Muir’s test as a coach will be blending the two styles into an effective game plan.

In contrast to the game against the Force, the Sharks spent much of the first half attempting to keep the ball in hand.

"We tried to play too much rugby too soon," said Muir, "and we made far too many mistakes and placed ourselves under pressure."

The result was that the Stormers, beaten for possession and territory, but with flank Schalk Burger dominant at the tackle, were able to hang on before striking with an excellent build-up and a try by scrumhalf Ricky Januarie midway through the half.

Grant converted and then kicked a penalty at half-time and the Sharks had nothing to show for a half of strong forward play but untidy finishing.

The Sharks continued to apply the pressure in the second half, and they were helped by the poor discipline of the Stormers and two yellow cards, but it was only in the final quarter that the home team found their rhythm.

Scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar left the field midway through the second half with a strained shoulder muscle — Muir said he will be out for a week — but replacement Rory Kockott brought an immediate buzz to the team.

With Adrian Jacobs as the replacement flyhalf and Steyn at centre, the Sharks took ball up effectively, creating continuity and momentum.

The outstanding hooker Bismarck du Plessis, replacement lock Albert van den Berg and Muir’s rotating props all played a role in the late revival.

Kockott kicked three penalties in the last quarter as the Stormers wilted and the Sharks finally went into the 12-10 lead eight minutes from the final whistle.

Stormers coach Rassie Erasmus said the loss of two players to the cooler had ruined the structure of the team.

"Discipline is certainly something we will work on, but I’m delighted with the courage and character of the players, particularly in defence.

"You must put this is perspective. The Sharks were finalists last year, they have been together for three years and they were in the Shark Tank. We have a new team and a new coach so we are still settling in. Yet we were in the race right to the end."

Sharks captain Johann Muller praised the Stormers: "They are a young side, still growing up, but they are much stronger than last year and I think they are going to be a real threat if they stick together".

Muir will be delighted with the impact made by his bench, but he also praised Michalak "as a special player".

Ahead this weekend lie the wounded Bulls, Loftus and another physical battle.

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