The New Zealand coach Graham Henry admits Luke McAlister would have started in the number 10 jersey against Italy even if Stephen Donald had been fit.
Henry looking to give McAlister a shot at fly-half
The New Zealand coach Graham Henry admits Luke McAlister would have started in the number 10 jersey against Italy even if Stephen Donald had been fit. Donald had a couple of mediocre performances in the two Tests against France and a tough night in Wellington last Saturday came to a merciful end when he suffered a hamstring strain midway through the second half . Saturday's Test against Italy at AMI Stadium in Christchurch will be McAlister's first start since the 2007 World Cup quarter-final against France after being fast-tracked back into the All Blacks following his return from a two season stint with English club Sale Sharks.
Henry is keen to see McAlister, 25, get some game time given the rapidly approaching Tri-Nations series against Australia and South Africa and the need to find someone to fill the fly-half role in Dan Carter's injury-enforced absence. "He's going to have to start to get the game-time, quite frankly," said the All Blacks coach. "He's played 25 minutes in the last two Test matches and played a full game [for the Barbarians] the week before that. We think he's ready.
"We probably would have played Luke in this Test because we need to see how he is. We need to see how his form is, how he adapts to fly-half because he's played most of his recent rugby at 12 and 13. "In the little cameos he has had in the first two Tests he's played well." Henry has made seven changes in total to the starting line-up that began against France in their 14-10 win in Wellington. Only hooker Keven Mealamu keeps his place in the front row from last weekend. Wyatt Crockett has been given the nod ahead of Tony Woodcock at loosehead prop and will make his international debut at his home ground.
John Afoa comes in for Neemia Tialata, who has an injury to his neck, at tighthead and Crockett's Crusaders teammate Owen Franks takes Afoa's place in the reserves. The Italian scrum is likely to give Crockett at tasty introduction to international rugby. "They have a very, very good forward pack and scrummaging is one of their key things," said New Zealand forwards coach Steve Hansen. "They are a bit like the Argentinians, they pride themselves on their scrum."
The return of Ali Williams in the second row alongside workhorse Brad Thorn should help. Williams has recovered sufficiently from his Achilles injury to force Isaac Ross in to the reserves. Another player returning from injury is scrum-half Brendon Leonard, on the mend from a hamstring injury. Isaia Toeava is given another chance at centre, while Lelia Masaga will make his All Blacks debut from the right wing.
* PA Sport