McAlister let loose on Woodward's lame Lions

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The Independent Online

in Auckland

It just about sums up the state of the British and Irish Lions' fortunes that, having seen off both Daniel Carter and Leon MacDonald in respect of tomorrow's final Test at Eden Park, they now find themselves up against one of the brightest young players on the planet - the 21-year-old Luke McAlister, whose considerable footballing gifts extend every which way, from Manchester United's school of excellence to All Black status, via some hot-shot rugby league.

While the Lions were reshaping their injury-ravaged back division by including two new caps - the Ireland full-back Geordan Murphy and the England wing Mark Cueto - and recalling Will Greenwood at inside centre, the New Zealanders found themselves in similar difficulties when MacDonald, named at fly-half for the incapacitated Carter, strained a groin muscle and ruled himself out of contention. Richie McCaw, the world's most accomplished open-side flanker, also cried off after twanging a hamstring during training, so the powerful Waikato loose forward Sione Lauaki plays in the back row.

McAlister's promotion provided the big talking point, though. Graham Henry, the head coach, might easily have called up Nick Evans of Otago, who played against England in this city a year ago, but opted to anoint a new All Black instead. And this All Black is very different from the norm.

Between the ages of three and 14 he lived in Lancashire, where his father Charlie earned a living as a rugby league professional with Oldham and Keighley, among others. "He decided to try his luck in England when he failed to make the All Blacks squad," McAlister said yesterday. "I grew up playing football with my friends, and Manchester United were my team. Especially Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane. I loved those guys."

United showed some interest in him, but when the family returned to New Zealand, the oval ball claimed him. "I played some league - I still prefer watching that game to union - but the school I attended on the North Shore took their rugby very seriously and I soon became caught up in it. Do I still have an interest in football? Not really. I just watch the goals these days. It's too boring taking in a whole match."

Identified by the International Rugby Board as the world's leading under-19 player in 2002, following some exceptional performances at a tournament in Italy, McAlister quickly secured a Super 12 contract with Auckland Blues and played for the New Zealand Maori against the Lions in Hamilton last month - the tourists' first defeat.

An inside centre by inclination, his strong kicking game gives him the flexibility to play 10. Not that he expects to challenge the extraordinary Carter for that particular jersey. "Dan was the man against the Lions last week," he said. "The guy was God."

A measure of the physical intensity of the series to date is that two clear-cut victories for the All Blacks have still resulted in an injury fall-out as severe, if not more so, than the Lions' closely-contested series in Australia four years ago. The New Zealanders have lost five influential first-choicers in the space of a fortnight - Carter, MacDonald, McCaw, Aaron Mauger and Carl Hayman - while the Lions are in shreds.

Yesterday, Sir Clive Woodward announced that two more players, the Ireland centre Gordon D'Arcy and the England lock Simon Shaw, had failed to recover from their various batterings in time to be considered for the last game. Both men might have been included in the squad.

Cueto and Murphy are well worth a shout, however. The former replaces his colleague and captain at Sale, Jason Robinson, whose form had diminished as Cueto's has gathered momentum. The latter effectively comes in for Shane Williams, the little Welshman whose running against the All Blacks last weekend was nowhere near as impressive as the velocity with which he was spat out in contact. Williams missed half a dozen important tackles in Wellington - an unaffordable luxury at this exalted level of the game.

Woodward has kept faith with the forwards who at least registered a presence in the second Test - a feat signally beyond the pack who played, or rather failed to play, the first Test in Christchurch. With New Zealand McCaw-less, it is just possible they will improve on last week's effort and give the Lions an even-money chance of staying in touch for longer than half an hour.

Third Test (Eden Park, tomorrow, 8.10am) New Zealand: M Muliaina; R Gear, C Smith, T Umaga (capt), S Sivivatu; L McAlister, B Kelleher; T Woodcock, K Mealamu, G Somerville, C Jack, A Williams, J Collins, R So'oialo, S Lauaki. Replacements: D Witcombe, C Johnstone, J Ryan, M Holah, J Marshall, N Evans, D Howlett.

British and Irish Lions: G Murphy (Ireland); M Cueto (England), W Greenwood (England), G Thomas (Wales, capt), J Lewsey (England); S Jones (Wales), D Peel (Wales); G Jenkins (Wales), S Thompson (England), J White (England), D O'Callaghan (Ireland), P O'Connell (Ireland), S Easterby (Ireland), L Moody (England), R Jones (Wales). Replacements: S Byrne (Ireland), G Rowntree (England), M Corry (England), M Williams (Wales), M Dawson (England), R O'Gara (Ireland), S Horgan (Ireland).

Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).