France should be licking their blue lips at the prospect of facing the All Blacks in chilly Dunedin although it's not altogether clear if Marc Lievremont's $6 outsiders are truly primed to grab the royal chance they have been presented with.

The noises out of the French camp have been mixed, involving a pushing down the accelerator of determination while putting a brake on their chances because they have been hurt by the tail of the French club season.

The scent of blood should be wafting towards the French noses in the cold Dunedin air this week, because they will face one of the poorest All Black lineups for many years.

In the All Blacks' troublesome hour - their two top centre choices are injured yet again - they have even bypassed all those brave souls who stayed in New Zealand to fight the good fight and stay in good shape, and instead snuck the jet-propelled Luke McAlister back via the reserves bench.

Coach Graham Henry quickly drummed up a fatherly plea, that McAlister be given some space, a sort of welcoming hug for the returning hero while gently wagging a finger the media and public's way.

"He hasn't played for three and a half months and I don't think we can expect too much too quickly," Henry announced, after calling up McAlister to replace the oft-injured Richard Kahui. "He is going to take time - let's take the pressure off a wee bit."

Take the pressure off? No sirreeee fella, not at test match time.

Pardon this interjection, but wasn't the stirring history of All Black rugby built on the deeds of men who went beyond their limits, who faced and accepted the pressure, and put it all on the line for their mates and their country.

What is this? Beach cricket or worse still, Twenty20.

They might have dragged Brian Lochore off the farm in an hour of need against a fabulous Lions side, but no one suggested that he was picked to let the side down.

"Gone to play in a test match love," he might have written in that famous kitchen table note to his wife "even though the coach thinks I've porked up a bit."

McAlister has had three and a half months off from rugby, give or take a Barbarians fiasco, having had his European club season curtailed by a knee injury. Is this really what the All Blacks now regard as sufficient test preparation, even for a reserve?

Not only is McAlister out of condition by the coach's own suggestion, but the versatile inside back is also out of position if he has really been elevated as cover for a specialist centre. For those who believe that McAlister is of test No 13 quality, imagine him facing Stirling Mortlock this week and readjust the thinking after that.

Kahui's injury was, it could be argued, a suddenly convenient way of sneaking McAlister - who figures in the long term plans at 10 or 12 - past rigorous scrutiny of the NZRU's residency rules and in through the back door.

New captain Mils Muliaina is the obvious man to shift into centre should injury strike, with Cory Jane - a fully qualified local resident unlike McAlister - poised to come in at fullback.

McAlister's selection was amusing on another count, since backs coach Wayne Smith had announced the selectors wanted to leave Stephen Donald free to find his feet at No 10 without an in-house competitor for the job of Dan Carter's understudy. There goes another piece of gobbledygook out the window.

Ma'a Nonu is in the greatest danger of losing his place to McAlister, who can kick as well as run. But Donald doesn't strike anyone as being as stupid and the much respected Chiefs pivot will have noticed that the selectors promoted a former test first five-eighths at the drop of a specialist centre.

Any plea for leeway in judging McAlister, or more importantly an implied dispensation for the selectors in choosing him, should fall on deaf ears.

When exactly did we reach the point of treating a major test as a bedding in exercise for a player who has had one festival match appearance in over three months. If McAlister isn't fit for test duty, he shouldn't be there.

This has ended up as the worst All Black side in the professional era, a mix of unproven players and combinations in a team where even some of their best players struggled for Super 14 form.

The Bulls' magnificent comeback against the Crusaders, and their crushing of the Chiefs, put New Zealand's excellent achievement of gaining three Super 14 finalists into perspective.

Of the All Black starting side, and among the established test players, perhaps only Muliaina, hooker Andrew Hore and lock Brad Thorn had strong Super 14 seasons.

Carter was never going to be available for this test anyway, having been posted through a loophole off to France.

Richie McCaw, Ali Williams and Sitiveni Sivivatu are injured. Carl Hayman is ineligible. That robs the side of four or five - depending on how you view Sivivatu - of the best test players not only in world rugby, but in the history of New Zealand rugby.

Tony Woodcock had an average Super 14 season after being affected by an ear injury, although there is every reason to have confidence the outstanding Blues prop will quickly come up to speed.

There is no established test halfback and the candidates are at crossroads in their still fairly young careers. Piri Weepu is no longer guaranteed a start at the Hurricanes, where he is also used at first five-eighths. Brendon Leonard had an injury interrupted season. The combative Jimmy Cowan, who starts against France, looked like an overly angry fellow at Eden Park. None of them are at peace with their test position.

Donald is still a test mystery, forever stuck in Dan Carter's shadow. He has an excellent temperament and the promise of sufficient ability, but there is an over-reliance on chip kicks to his attack.

The midfield of Ma'a Nonu and utility Isaia Toeava could explode or implode. You will either barely be able to look at this madcap combo, or won't be able to take your eyes off them. Further out, Joe Rokocoko had a lifeless Super 14 in an unstable team. Rudi Wulf is a very competent footballer, but hardly in the tradition of outstanding New Zealand wings.

Back to the forwards where lock Isaac Ross is as green as Jeanette Fitzsimons strapped to an endangered kauri. Ross will lead a shortish New Zealand lineout in combination with two throwers he is unfamiliar with. On their day, France are lineout wizards. If Thorn or Ross break down, we're down to Hurricanes spare part Bryn Evans. Good heavens.

The loose forward combination of Adam Thompson, Liam Messam and Kieran Reid is not a combination yet and none of the All Black loosies are of proven test calibre. Thompson is not an openside specialist, playing in a position that cries out for it. If the lightweight Tanerau Latimer gets on the field, he faces a daunting task slowing French ball if the tourists are at their unpredictable and physical best. The biggest hurdle to overcome will be taking the field without McCaw, the magnificent forward who often props up his All Black teams.

All is not lost of course, and the wise observer would still back a home victory. There is much to be gained through men like Donald and Messam having to command this situation, although the Chiefs' Loftus letdown does not bode well in this department. If Nonu and Toeava run amok, as they might if France are not well co-ordinated on defence, then the visitors could be in for a torrid time. But you would fear the consequences should this All Black lineup, with only one inside back kicking option, run out at Ellis Park or even Suncorp Stadium.

This All Black side is down on firepower partly through no fault of its own - namely injuries. The All Blacks also significantly cut their own firepower by allowing Carter to play in Europe, in direct contravention not only of their rules but also continual claims that the players need more rest. But development plans in many areas have been haphazard. Picking McAlister further tests their credibility. Henry's plea is spin, the dumbing down of the test experience, a self-serving exercise which helps create a soft landing zone should the All Blacks come crashing down. This is just another form of the rest and rotation policy that led to the over-managed and under-prepared side which failed at the last World Cup.

Test rugby is no place for excuses. Either McAlister is ready for battle, or he ain't. It's all or nothing, down in the trenches, with every man deserving of his place.

McAlister certainly seemed quite relaxed and ready to take on the world in Sydney this week, freely advising the NZRU to shower league quitter Sonny Bill Williams with all the money it can. It would be no surprise at all if the NZRU took his advice, for what it's worth.