If rumours are to be believed, it’s quite likely that the Natal Sharks will have Fred Michalak available at flyhalf for the majority of their 2008 Currie Cup campaign. While a reasonable short-term stopgap, I feel that playing the maverick Frenchman will do more harm than good in the long-term.
The Sharks have something of an Achilles heel at flyhalf. The departure of Butch James for pastures greener has left a huge void. It was hoped that Michalak would be the man to slot in at pivot and aid in the development of Frans Steyn, felt by the brains trust to be the natural long-term solution at ten. Neither of these gambles paid off in this year’s Super 14, however, with both men looking wholly unimpressive when entrusted with the backline general role.
Steyn doesn’t seem to have the speed to play flyhalf at the highest level. His hands, feet and (most importantly) decision making abilities just don’t appear to happen fast enough to truly dictate a game from the number ten position. He was given a fair amount of time at pivot in the opening stages of the competition, but it appears that the Sharks have now backtracked on this and are viewing him primarily as a midfield option. Michalak, on the other hand, showed some patches of brilliance, but questions around his temperament and more vitally, his ability to communicate well enough with those around him, severely blunted his impact. His knee injury ten minutes into the Waratahs game brought down the curtain on a Super 14 campaign that failed to deliver on much of its promise.
Ruan Pienaar emerged as an unlikely hero (of sorts) in the final weeks of the competition and although he played quite well against the Cheetahs and Chiefs, appeared far short of the mark when the Sharks lost hopelessly in Sydney a week later. He has all the skills to succeed at flyhalf but lacks the calmness under pressure that comes with experience in the position. His temperament may also come into question. Whether or not Pienaar will actually develop into a top flyhalf is impossible to predict right now; his elevation to the Springbok squad is unlikely to reveal the answer either, as he will no doubt enjoy very little game-time over the next 3 months. Perhaps a full Currie Cup campaign settling into the flyhalf role with the Sharks would have served him better at this stage?
Whatever the case, the Sharks will be without Pienaar, Steyn and even stand-in pivot Adi Jacobs for the bulk of the Currie Cup season. Only once the play-offs loom could they hope to have any of these three available, in itself a long shot. Although it might be a case of necessity to play Michalak now, he will not be around once the new French season kicks off. Any time he spends gelling with th Sharks backline will be wasted. Furthermore, the fact that he can’t speak English means that those around him are unlikely to learn from playing with him. In fact, his presence in the squad is nothing but an obstacle to further development of the flyhalves in the squad.
The Sharks don’t have any idea who will play at flyhalf in next year’s Super 14 either. I just hope they plan to re-contract Butch James, since Steyn has shown he’s not up to it, Michalak will be in France and Pienaar will still not be experienced enough in the position, having spent the bulk of 2008 on the Bok woodwork, filling in at scrumhalf, flyhalf, fullback and wherever else he happens to be needed. The other option here (and the one I would recommend) is to entrust Bradley Barritt with the role in the Currie Cup with a view to him developing as a natural flyhalf option for the Super 14 next year.
Barritt has the vision and brain to play flyhalf and is the best defender in the Sharks squad. He lacks real pace, which (according to the views of a former national coach) is the reason he has to date not been considered for higher honours as a centre, but flyhalf is the one position where this limitation can potentially best be overcome. Barritt needs to work on his kicking game, but with his pedigree and work ethic, there is no reason to suspect that come the business end of the Currie Cup, Barritt shouldn’t be well on his way to being a far more complete pivot. He was, after all, an accomplished kicker at school level, both out of hand and at goal and should now hopefully be over the troublesome ankle injury that has limited his kicking abilities to date.
None of the other young flyhalves in the squad appear to have what it takes to make a serious impact on the Currie Cup stage. Tiaan Marx played the majority of the season at pivot for the Wildebeest and certainly didn’t do much to turn their woeful season around. Scott Spedding seems seriously light on big match temperament, for all his skills and Riaan Swanepoel looks set to be swallowed up by the same “utility curse” that has prevented any of the Sharks inside backs from settling at ten.
Having Michalak in the squad will be a great insurance policy for the Sharks in this year’s Currie Cup, but Bradley Barritt is the man who needs to start the majority of games in the number ten shirt, if we are to take anything meaningful from this year’s campaign forward to the Super 14 next year.Tweet