Hugh Farrelly: When Irish Eyes Are elsewhere
HELLO? Anyone? Yep, it's hard to compete with the soccer boys at the moment.
The Ireland rugby squad in New Zealand may harbour more muscles (and Irish accents) than their footballing brethren heading to Euro 2012 but, in terms of national interest, they are behind the eight-ball.
Over the next few weeks, Giovanni Trapattoni and his players will command vast amounts of newspaper, TV and radio coverage as the country unites behind the 'Ole, Ole' excitement of Poland and Ukraine.
Meanwhile, six and a half thousand miles away, like Cillian Murphy at the start of '28 Days Later', Irish rugby is forgotten and forlorn, relegated to the 'and finally and very briefly...' items in sports bulletins and back next to the cricket, hockey and road bowling in the dark recesses of the paper (hi guys).
Maybe Damien Dempsey could do a song about it. He could call it 'When Irish Eyes Are... Elsewhere'.
So be it. Between the World Cup, Heineken Cup and Six Nations, rugby has had a fair old run at it this season and the three-Test assignment in New Zealand could never hope to compete with the soccer and big GAA matches this summer.
Furthermore, any clamour for attention is compromised by the seemingly hopeless nature of this mission against the world champions in their own lair.
Thus, there is irony in the fact that, while they may be garnering little notice in their native land, the Ireland rugby team are big news over here.
Already hugely popular since their Aussie-beating Auckland exploits at the World Cup, the feverish excitement surrounding New Zealand's first outing since landing the Webb Ellis trophy at Eden Park last year means the Irish have been embraced by the Kiwis once again. Admittedly, this has more to do with their expected compliance in a celebration of All Blacks excellence than anticipation of a challenging series.
Certainly, if the quality of yesterday's Super Rugby clash between the Crusaders and Highlanders is anything to go by, this series could be a thundering confirmation of southern hemisphere superiority.
The Crusaders, poised to provide the bulk of the New Zealand side to face Ireland next week, won handsomely, taking off after the Highlanders' Englander James Haskell was sin-binned in the first half.
The standard of their ball-handling, space awareness and appreciation of depth was exceptional and it was not just the flashy stuff. The quality of the set-pieces together with ferocious rucking and counter-rucking sent out an ominous message also and the only area of encouragement for Declan Kidney and his coaching staff was in the handful of loose tackles.
The Crusaders carried a few totemic figures in their line-up, with Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read all coming through strongly, although the latter two picked up minor knocks.
Any notions that Carter might not have returned to his pre-injury best were banished on the basis of this performance.
He grimaced heavily after his first (50-metre) place-kicking success, but showed no further evidence of any on-going issues with the groin problem that forced his withdrawal from the World Cup as he masterminded a 33-point hammering.
But it was not merely their star names who impressed. Lesser-known Crusaders such as centres Ryan Crotty and Robbie Freuan and hooker Quentin MacDonald oozed international-worthy class to emphasise the strength in depth in New Zealand rugby (incidentally, the entire Crusaders squad is New Zealand-qualified).
Meanwhile, Ireland go into these contests without two of their totems, Paul O'Connell and Stephen Ferris, and with major concerns surrounding their scrummaging fulcrum, Mike Ross, for next week.
A fairly grim scenario, no matter how you examine it. However, with the proviso that they reside squarely in the environs of straw-clutching, there are points of optimism if you look hard enough.
Firstly, Steve Hansen will be feeling an inordinate amount of pressure this week as he faces into his first Test as New Zealand coach. He has a hard act to follow in Graham Henry and whatever side he selects next week, Hansen will come in for criticism from media and supporters, who were not wholeheartedly behind his straightforward accession to the top job.
That creates its own pressure, whereas the Irish can approach the series free of any expectation and on a 'nothing to lose' footing, especially since defeat will have negligible impact on the rankings that will be crucial for the end-of-season World Cup 2015 draw.
Secondly, while there is no O'Connell or Ferris, Brian O'Driscoll is back and the record books show that Ireland are always a more formidable proposition when their revered No 13 is in tow.
The final, faith-based, clutch revolves around Kidney's capacity for against-the-odds achievement. Overseeing a first win over the All Blacks when it feels like no-one is watching would indeed be classic Kidney.
The Ireland coach has been coming under increasing pressure since the Six Nations and this quest has been likened to a heavily burdened Frodo heading, leaden-footed into Mordor.
Frodo slipped in unnoticed, while attention was focused on battles elsewhere and the only way to suddenly draw the gaze of the 'Eye of Sauron' in this case would be to do what 24 other Irish sides have failed to do in 107 years -- go out and beat the All Blacks.