Dowd backs McAlister

Getty Images     29 Jul 2010     Getty Images

A host of talent is set to play for provincial pride while also reminding Graham Henry of what he is missing.

Dowd, who propped up the scrum 60 times for New Zealand, says time is fast evaporating for players on the cusp of the national side ahead of the pinnacle event next year.

"This is the last competition for the All Blacks to put their hand up for the World Cup next year," Dowd said.

There is the Super 15 next year, but progression of players' form means the National Provincial Championship has arrived at a critical stage.

"You look at Sam Whitelock who was playing club rugby this time last year. He made the Canterbury side, then the Crusaders and became an All Black. For any of those guys [fringe All Blacks] it's almost your last chance to put your hand up for an All Black jersey. I'm expecting there'll be a lot of players playing very, very well."

McAlister suffered depleted confidence and form after returning from a two-year stint with Sale Sharks last year. He burst to life to celebrate New Zealand Maori's centenary series and was called into the All Blacks camp during the June Tests.

"He's playing really well, he's full of confidence, he's enjoying the environment," Dowd said. "Luke wants to get back to enjoying himself and this team provides that for him."

McAlister joins halfbacks Alby Mathewson, Brendon Leonard, Andy Ellis and Kahn Fotualii, first five-eighths Stephen Donald, Mike Delany and Colin Slade, wings Hosea Gear and Zac Guildford, flankers Adam Thomson, Tanerau Latimer and Daniel Braid, prop Neemia Tialata, hooker Aled de Malmanche and locks Isaac Ross and Josh Bekhuis as players who are out to press their claims.

Dowd's North Harbour side has major injury concerns as it prepares for the 25th anniversary of the battle of the bridge in Albany on Sunday.

Harbour has won 12 of the 58 traditional clashes with Auckland (excluding two draws), although it was victorious 16-14 last year.

"North Harbour used to be part of Auckland 25 years ago," Dowd explains. "There's a lot of history gone down in the famous battle of the bridge games. I'm hoping this one will make history as well."

In a cruel start to the season, three of Dowd's locks have been chopped down. James King is two weeks away from shoulder reconstruction recovery, Filo Paulo has a cracked sternum and Michael Farmer is nursing a broken collarbone.

Wellington No.8 import Mathew Luamanu has a hyper-extended elbow and New Zealand Maori prop Ben Afeaki is also doubtful, meaning inexperienced players who would have been ushered in throughout the competition will now be called upon from the first encounter.

"We didn't want to introduce too many young guys right from the start but fate has forced us to do that," Dowd said.

Next year the NPC will be split into two separate seven-team pools – top and bottom – with this season's standings defining where your future lies.

"This is a harsh competition," Dowd said. "One bad decision can dictate your whole season. We're prepared for that. Our goal is to be in the top seven at the end of this year."