The Sharks will now travel down to New Zealand to face the Chiefs in next weekend’s final and will need to overcome even greater odds than they conquered in Cape Town.
The Stormers, having topped the overall standings, unbeaten at home and having the best defensive record, were expected to freeze out a Sharks team that had just flown halfway around the world twice after their memorable win over the Reds in Brisbane.
But Michalak, the veteran of 56 Tests, showed nerves of steel as he slotted two drop goals, as well as a pair of penalties and conversions, to build on the superb work of his forwards.
Starting at number one Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, who gave the Stormers a torrid time in the scrums, through to the second row, where Anton Bresler was outstanding, to the rugged loose trio that pilfered ball, were tough on defence and carried the ball menacingly, the Sharks pack ensured enough front-foot possession and momentum to hold off the effects of jetlag.
Sharks coach John Plumtree, who sprang a surprise before kickoff by playing JP Pietersen at outside centre, Louis Ludik on the wing and big-kicking Riaan Viljoen at fullback (all inspired moves), admitted that he had delayed his final selection to allow Michalak to recover from a bug that left him vomiting all week.
“Freddie has been ill this week and at one stage it looked as if he wouldn’t even play. But he’s a great guy for just keeping the scoreboard ticking over and he kept the Stormers at arm’s length. He’s a great reader of the game and he’s been fantastic in the team environment,” Plumtree said.
“He’s really enjoying himself. He’s a big game player, the bigger the game, the bigger the occasion, the more he loves it. We’ve given him a lot of responsibility in how we want to play the game and he has been going really well and I am really pleased for him.”
Michalak’s top-class performance saw him rewarded with the man of the match award: He married a reliable boot to a variety of options with ball in hand and a sense of calm under pressure.
Although the 29-year-old is now returning to France to play for Toulon, the Sharks would welcome him back. And the feeling appears to be mutual.
“It’s a bonus to be on the Sharks team and I try my best every week to lead from the front. I want to go on and win the trophy and everyone is helping me to do my best, I have the confidence of the coaches too. I’m happy,” Michalak said.
Michalak’s vision and intuition played a part in both Sharks tries.
In the 35th minute, he turned a defensive position into attack with enormous composure, allowing Viljoen to launch a pinpoint up-and-under that Ludik claimed to speed away for the opening try.
And then, on the hour mark, he shaped to kick another drop goal but instead dashed swiftly on to attack before feeding the ball to Pietersen, whose shimmy outside and step inside wrecked the Stormers defence and gave him the match-winning try.
Michalak’s impressive 30-metre drop goal gave the Sharks a 26-19 lead with four minutes to go, but they were hanging on by a prayer at the end, the Toulon-bound enigma ending the match on his back, weeping for joy.