McAlister given central role as Sale flex their muscles

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The Independent Online

When a director of rugby is still looking for his first league win in late November and his team are propping up the rest of the Premiership after almost a third of the campaign, the last thing he wants to see is one of the best half-dozen players on the planet descending the steps of the opposition team bus. Unfortunately for Mike Ruddock of Worcester, the club game on the English side of the Severn Bridge is well known for kicking people when they are down.

Sale, who had their own problems last term but now look something like their old selves, have decided to give Luke McAlister his first taste of bread-and-butter rugby in tonight's match at Sixways. The All Black midfielder comes armed with a winner's reputation, despite New Zealand's rather amusing failure at the World Cup, and a kicking game that might have been constructed by the man responsible for nuclear fission, such is the power he brings to this central part of his act.

Ruddock, the former Wales coach, is awaiting a New Zealander or two of his own – the Canterbury wing Rico Gear and Auckland centre Sam Tuitupou are expected at Sixways soon – but, as things stand, Worcester have a lightweight look about them.

Dale Rasmussen, the Samoan centre who makes a habit of defending as though he is playing for an Alamo XV, is back between the shafts for this game, and there is a starting place at hooker for Aleki Lutui, so impressive for Tonga at the World Cup. But with another Samoan midfielder, Loki Crichton, suffering with calf problems and the experienced back-rower Drew Hickey in disciplinary trouble after being sent off in a second-string fixture, the good news is comfortably matched by the bad.

Ruddock's opposite number, Philippe Saint-André, was in Gallic shrug mode yesterday as he nonchalantly dropped McAlister's name on to Sale's team-sheet. "Luke has trained with us this week and is looking good, so I've decided to start with him," he said.

McAlister has been picked in the centre, outside Charlie Hodgson, who was England's first-choice No 10 this time last year but has disappeared off the international radar, thanks to injury. "We're both playmakers," Hodgson said yesterday. "I hope it means we can take some pressure off each other by sharing the workload. Perhaps on occasions, I haven't had much room in which to work. With Luke outside, there might be a bit more space as people focus on him."

As Sale will have three of their kingpin Test forwards on the field – the England prop Andrew Sheridan, the Scotland flanker Jason White and the French folk hero Sébastien Chabal – they will expect to claim four points, if not the full five, this evening. That would leave Worcester with only two more chances of winning a Premiership match before Christmas, and one of those games is away at London Irish, who are playing some brilliant stuff at the moment.

The man who took over from Hodgson at the start of this year's Six Nations Championship – a chap by the name of Wilkinson – has yet to put the rugby world's most chronicled list of orthopaedic calamities fully behind him. Saint Jonny of Kingston Park was never fully fit during the World Cup, having turned an ankle at an early training session in France, and he will miss Newcastle's league match at Wasps on Sunday.

"He had an injection to get the inflammation down," said John Fletcher, the Falcons' director of rugby, who has also lost the gifted Toby Flood to injury. "[He] did most of the training during the week and was very close to playing."

Fletcher expressed a view or two on the development of English-qualified players – a pressing point in more than one major team sport right now. "We'll have 14 English players, 10 of them graduates for our academy, in the line-up this weekend," he said. "The easiest thing to do would be to buy a team full of South Africans or Pacific Islanders. That would be a decent side, but what benefit would there be to English or North-east rugby?"

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