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Another Acid Test Looms For McAlister

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Fuseworks Media
Luke McAlister. Pic: NZPA
Luke McAlister. Pic: NZPA

By Chris Barclay of NZPA

Auckland, July 4 NZPA - Luke McAlister's underwhelming return to New Zealand rugby reaches another critical juncture when the All Blacks mount their Tri-Nations defence with the opening Bledisloe Cup test against Australia on July 18.

Despite sub-par performances against France -- and particularly Italy -- McAlister is almost certain to start at first five-eighth against the Wallabies at Eden Park as the All Blacks' injury woes continue.

A subdued McAlister confessed he would be reluctant to pick himself for the Tri-Nations opener on the strength on his contribution to the 27-6 defeat of Italy in Christchurch last week, but with Stephen Donald unlikely to be fit until the first of two tests in South Africa the selectors have no option but to persevere with the erratic playmaker.

All Blacks head coach Graham Henry confirmed Donald was in serious doubt for the Wallabies test after he announced a 30-man squad for the Tri-Nations.

Donald missed the Italian test with a hamstring injury and although he felt comfortable medical staff and management are likely to err on the side of caution.

Henry confirmed Donald, who also received mixed reviews against the French, was the side's first choice first five-eighth in the absence of a rehabilitating Daniel Carter and sympathised with a shaken McAlister.

"He's finding the transition from midfield to five-eighth, where he becomes the navigator, bloody hard," Henry said.

Henry said second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu and the halfbacks would be responsible for helping guide McAlister around the park, while the return of captain Richie McCaw and Rodney So'oialo would also provide a calming influence.

"Playing five-eighth is a lot more difficult today than it was when (assistant coach) Wayne Smith or Grant Fox were playing," Henry said.

"It's not so demanding from the set piece but the phase play when you're trying to get people organised...it's a hell of a difficult ask because of the picket-like defence.

"Unless they get good support from the guys around them it's an almost impossible job," Henry said.

"It took Dan Carter a long time to be acclimatised to that. Now you're expecting guys to come in and just be God-like in that position."

While a lack of viable alternatives ensured McAlister was guaranteed to retain his place for the Tri-Nations, loose forward Liam Messam and one-test wing Lelia Masaga were not as fortunate.

Messam paid the price for an error-rate that contributed to the French victory in Carisbrook while Masaga has been usurped by Hosea Gear, a first time All Black last year who forced his way back after an impressive Pacific Nations Cup campaign with the Junior All Blacks.

Jason Eaton, a virtual passenger on the All Blacks' Grand Slam tour last November, is also promoted from the Juniors to cover the unavailability of locks Ali Williams and Anthony Boric.

Eaton's ability to also cover blindside flanker might see him earn a place on the bench.

While So'oialo returns from a rest, McCaw a knee injury and wing Sitiveni Sivivatu (shoulder dislocation), the All Blacks' back resources are still dangerously thin.

Isaia Toeava has a stress fracture in his left foot and will probably miss the first three tests while his cover, uncapped Wellington utility Tamati Ellison, was concussed while playing for the Juniors so Anthony Tuitavake is on stand-by when the squad assembles in Wellington next week.

Canterbury first five-eighth Stephen Brett will also attend the training camp along with provincial front row teammate Ben Franks.

After the All Blacks host Australia they play the Springboks in Bloemfontein on July 25 and Durban on August 1.

They then play the Wallabies at Sydney on August 22 and finish the competition with two home tests against the Springboks in Hamilton, on September 12 and the Wallabies in Wellington, on September 19.

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