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Luke Wants To Play Cool Hand In 10

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Luke Wants To Play Cool Hand In 10

By Daniel Gilhooly of NZPA

Christchurch, June 27 NZPA - As long as he can sidestep the nerves, Luke McAlister is poised to ignite an All Blacks backline that has spluttered ahead of tonight's rugby test against Italy.

First five-eighth McAlister shapes as a key figure at AMI Stadium in a game where the attitude of both teams are poles apart.

Italy will want 80 minutes of slugfest rugby, using their experienced pack to challenge the All Blacks' set piece, in turn slowing down the speed of both the ball and the scoreboard attendants.

Having been stifled in the backline throughout the drawn series against France, the hosts will be itching to free a back division packed with individual stars and marshalled from the back by the cool head of captain Mils Muliaina -- playing his 71st test, which lifts him to fifth among the most capped All Blacks.

Stephen Donald struggled at No 10 during the French series, particularly in the second test at Wellington where 14 points were enough for the All Blacks' to win but was their lowest points tally in 35 tests.

If McAlister fires in his first start for 21 months, he could well be in the box seat to run procee dings during the Tri-Nations.

The xx-year-old didn't want to look that far ahead, conscious tonight is a big enough personal challenge given the lack of rugby since ending his tenure with English club Sale 4-1/2 months ago.

"It's just getting everything right in my head," he said.

"Making sure I've got everything prepared going into the game and that we've looked at it Italy-wise, where their strengths and weaknesses are and making sure that I execute everything I can."

McAlister's demeanour was almost the same as the shy man who debuted against the British and Irish Lions at Auckland four years ago, also at first five.

"The nerves are definitely there, they are going to be there no matter what. It's just how I channel those nerves and try and make them come out positive," said McAlister, who accepted his performance would be scrutinised closely as the All Blacks seek to break the shackles in their last hitout before facing Australia and South Africa.

"I think everyone's under pressure, that's just the way New Zealand rugby is and the way the All Blacks are. It's the way you deal with that pressure that's the key.

"The boys are really supportive. I've come back in and it's like I've never left really in that regard."

Another to be watched closely will be prop Wyatt Crockett, who will debut against one of Europe's traditionally stronger scrums. The Azzurri front row gave the strong Wallabies pack a hard time in two tests and All Blacks forwards coach Steve Hansen said Crockett can't afford to ease his way in slowly.

"It's an area where we need to know how well he can stand up," Hansen said.

"We've got to find out if he can play at this level."

Italy captain Sergio Parisse believed his side's strengths may be helped by the appointment of referee George Clancy, the young Irishman in charge when France dominated up front in the first tests at Dunedin.

"With the rolling maul now you have the opportunity to attack the other team so maybe he (Clancy) ... might be more strict than a southern hemisphere referee who just shouts play, play, play."

No 8 Parisse took it upon himself to help shut down the key All Blacks combination of McAlister and second five-eighth Ma'a Nonu, with the latter's potent form a genuine concern.

"We have focused our week in training on defence, especially one against one," he said.

"But sometimes if you see guys like Ma'a Nonu coming into the line we're trying to get two men on one because he is very strong and it's very difficult to stop him."

The game will be emotional for New Zealand's Kaine Robertson on the the Italian right wing.

He returns home to Viadana tomorrow to be with his first baby daughter Rebecca, who was born days before the team began their tour.

In August he will wed long-time Italian partner Isabella.


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