BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Follow Big Ben’s lead and put this Lions lark in perspective

Ben Roethlisberger has never heard of Brian O’Driscoll. Or Jonathan Sexton, Ronan O’Gara or Robbie Keane for that matter.

None of that is to say that he is ignorant of all things do to with Irish sports. The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, a five-handicapper, spent 10 days playing golf around Ireland and Scotland last year and was blown away by Old Head in Kinsale in particular.

We know all this because he was back in Ireland yesterday, as a favour to Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, as special guest for the annual Fourth of July flag football game at the US Ambassador’s residence in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, which the Irish-American started during his term in that same office.

Roethlisberger’s sit-down with the Irish media was merely minutes old when one of our number enquired as to whether he was aware of the Leinster and Ireland centre whose demotion by Warren Gatland had put the entire island into a tailspin on Wednesday.

Or so it seemed.

“No,” said Roethlisberger straight up. “I did a Sky Sports interview [in London on the Wednesday] and leading up to it they briefly said that a rugby player wasn’t playing. That’s all I know and I don’t know much else.”

Confirmation then that the whole world is not, in fact, dancing to the beat of the Lions drum.

That has been easy to forget lately, especially so in the wake of O’Driscoll’s plummet from hero to zero, but it is high time to row back on the high dudgeon and remind ourselves that the sun will still rise on Sunday morning regardless of the happenings on Planet Lions this weekend.

The third and deciding Test against Australia tomorrow will, unquestionably, be an occasion to savour for anyone who appreciates the drama which sport delivers with a FedEx consistency, but the hype and general brouhaha that has surrounded the 2013 touring party has been nothing short of staggering.

It all started last September.

Pre-season training had hardly ended and Ireland’s best players were having microphones stuck under their noses and being asked about the prospects of wearing a red jersey in Australia the following summer. Some journalists asked the question more than others, but we were all guilty to some degree.

It seemed that every Irish injury and every Irish performance, both individual and collective, over the season just gone was framed against the backdrop of Warren Gatland’s possible selection and the chief cheerleader throughout it all was Sky Sports, which of course has the live broadcasting rights.

Heineken Cup weekends never ended until the ‘Lions team of the week’ was picked, entire pubs were booked to hold hour-long specials months before the squad was even announced and the Lions themselves have been just as proactive in pushing a ‘brand’ that is showcased only once every four years.

It is 10 months since this writer was diverted from duties at the Paralympic Games for an afternoon to attend the ‘unveiling’ of Gatland as head coach for the 2013 party. To be honest, the celebrations marking the Queen’s 60th coronation anniversary were not nearly as overbearing and over in half the time.

For over 10 months the players and coaches in that Lions camp have been listening to people declare in painfully solemn tones just how important the whole thing is: how it is their duty to live up to the JJs, the Willie Johns and the JPRs and, by the by, claim a first series win since 1997 too.

Expectation is nothing new for professional athletes. These are players who have taken to countless fields burdened by the weight of expectation, but talk of a limping Wallaby team only elevated the pressure to win.

Gatland’s game plan has been blamed in many quarters for a lack of creativity, but the body language emanating from the players in the first two Tests has betrayed a party all too aware of the inflated stakes and it will be interesting to hear people’s thoughts after they go their four separate ways next week.

Whatever the result in Sydney, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the next touring party should lay off somewhat on the recordings of Jim Telfer’s famous speech from 16 years ago, the evocations of the ‘99’ call in 1974 and their own exhortations that every outing ‘is the biggest f*****g game of our lives’.

Gatland’s squad might have been labelled red slabs of meat by one Australian newspaper when it was announced but it is off the pitch where these tourists — and everyone else — need to lighten up.


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