Luke McAlister: the star from the south heads north to Sale

Luke McAlister arrives at Sale as the highest-profile of a number of All Blacks joining Premiership clubs. His presence is indicative of a new order prompted by a showpiece event which shattered old certainties
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Down in the Land of the All Black Cloud, the clock is starting to tick. There is a rebuilding job to be done before New Zealand play host to the Rugby World Cup of 2011 and fears have been expressed this week that it might not be completed in time. So much, though, for the reconstruction of Eden Park. Whether New Zealand can build a team capable of winning the Webb Ellis Cup in the Auckland arena is entirely another matter

Five-and-a-half weeks after the challenge of the 2007 All Blacks crumbled to dust in the bowl of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, destroyed by a stunning French quarter-final comeback, the powers-that-be in New Zealand rugby are slowly turning to the task of putting some foundations back in place. Yesterday the New Zealand Rugby Union formally invited Graham Henry, the head coach, and his two assistants, Steve Hanson and Wayne Smith, to reapply for their positions. They have until 26 November to decide whether to do so.

The smart money is on Robbie Deans, coach of the Crusaders Super 14 side and a former All Black full-back, being given the main job. But whoever happens to get it will face a considerable task. That much was clear when Luke McAlister walked into the Topaz Room at Edgeley Park yesterday, resplendent in the dark blue and white colours of Sale Sharks.

At 24, McAlister is the youngest and brightest of the stellar talents leaving New Zealand rugby for the fresh challenge and big bucks of the European club scene. As he showed in that fateful quarter-final defeat against the French, he can cut the best of opposition to shreds. An inside-centre of excellence – and a brilliant fly-half too – he fashioned and finished the try that put the All Blacks 10-0 up before drawing a yellow card from the English referee, Wayne Barnes, for blocking Yannick Jauzion. It was a key incident in a game which finished 20-18 in favour of France.

McAlister is second only to Dan Carter as the most dazzling All Black to emerge in recent years. And yet he will be out of reach to the man appointed as the head of All Black reconstruction. The NZRU will consider only players based in New Zealand for national selection. That removes McAlister from the equation until the end of 2009. The former North Harbour and Blues player has signed a two-year contract with Sale.

"Making the decision to leave was hard," he said. "There's been a lot of time and investment spent on me. I've grown up in the system in New Zealand, learnt everything I know in that. But it was time for me to move, time for a change.

"I always wanted to explore the world and play different kinds of rugby and leaving now gives me a chance to do that. I'm probably one of the youngest guys to do it but I'm sure there are going to be a lot more coming in the next few years.

"The game's changing. You grow up wanting to be an All Black but now it's sort of 'look after yourself', rather than spend 10 years in New Zealand. It's only a short career. People don't really see that back home: the public. They see it as, 'Give up your life for the All Black jersey'. But you have to look after yourself.

"I don't want to be one of these guys who gets to 31, 32 with nothing to show for it. I want to be able to look after my wife and my family. That's the main thing. I want to do what's best for my little girl and if coming here's going to help me do that, and to experience the world at the same time – experience different rugby – that's what I'm going to do."

At salaries of £200,000 and upwards per man, McAlister and the other All Blacks pitching up in Europe – Chris Jack at Saracens, Carl Hayman at Newcastle, Aaron Mauger at Leicester, Doug Howlett at Munster, Byron Kelleher at Toulouse, Anton Oliver at Toulon – are doubling their earning power. At what cost to rugby union in New Zealand, though, remains to be seen.

"I think it's going to be hard for them to keep players because the offers over here are so lucrative," McAlister said. Would it not make sense, then, to drop the bar on the selection of players based overseas? "It would be good for me personally if they did that," he said. "But for the good of New Zealand rugby I don't think they should. They'll lose a lot more young players if you can be an All Black while playing over here."

McAlister, of course, is young enough to earn a tidy crust in England's North-west – playing alongside Charlie Hodgson, Mark Cueto, Andrew Sheridan, Sébastien Chabal, and Jason White in a Sale team determined to return to the highs of 2006, when they topped the Guinness Premiership and won the play-off final against Leicester at Twickenham – and return home in time to be part of the All Black World Cup team in 2011.

"Obviously, it's a goal to be back in the All Blacks," he said, "but you can't look too far into the future. Players are going to be stepping into my position and who knows where rugby is going to be in 2011.

It's a long time. Just look how rugby has changed in the last four years. If you had asked me the same question four years ago I bet I would have said I'd be playing in New Zealand now."

Instead, in looking after the future of his daughter, Astyn (whose name is tattooed on the inside of his right arm), McAlister is doing precisely what his father did before him. Back in the 1980s his father, Charlie, uprooted his family from New Zealand and moved to England's North-west because of the financial lure of rugby. He played league for Oldham, Castleford and Sheffield Eagles.

Luke lived at Middleton, near Rochdale, from the age of four to when he was 13. His first sporting love was football and he played as a centre-forward for Lancashire Schools, attending Manchester United's school of excellence. According to his father, who accompanied him on his return yesterday, his love affair with football came to an end when he was verbally abused by a coach while struggling to get to grips with a frozen, rutted pitch at Royton.

"Oh, there were always icy days at Royton," McAlister Jnr recalled. "Football was fun until I got a coach who was a bit of a jerk. I didn't get on with him too well so I thought, 'Stuff you, I'll move on to rugby league.' When I went back home I played rugby league for year before I went to high school. They didn't play rugby league there, so I started playing rugby union."

And following in the studmarks of his maternal great-grandfather. Arthur Collins won three caps as a full-back for the All Blacks in the 1930s.

McAlister won his first in July 2005, as a stand-in for the injured Carter in the third Test against the British and Irish Lions at Eden Park. He stood out, too, helping his country to a 39-19 win and the completion of a series blackwash. He won his latest cap – his 22nd – in that Cardiff quarter-final on 7 October.

It was not an occasion he was keen to dwell upon yesterday – even though Henry and his assistants, according to The New Zealand Herald, spent the bulk of their "performance review" in front of the NZRU committee on Wednesday painstakingly dissecting the action and pointing out 17 alleged second-half refereeing errors by Mr Barnes, the yellow card for their inside-centre presumably among them. "I haven't even seen the game on video," McAlister said. "I don't really want to."

But would he like to point an accusing finger away from himself, his colleagues and the All Black coaches, in the general direction of one of the whistle-blowers he will be encountering in the Guinness Premiership? "I guess we gave it our best shot as players," the Sale new boy said. "There's no one who didn't give it their all. That's all you can ask of a team.

"I'm not one to blame the ref or anything but he did make a few shocking calls. That's rugby. You can't control what the ref does. You can only control what you do."

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