Bonus is performance related for O'Gara

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The Independent Online

Descriptions of Irish parties are invariably laced with euphemism. When Ronan O'Gara described his side's post-Twickenham shindig as "surprisingly tame", the knee-jerk temptation was to imagine something substantially more boisterous than, say, an evening of bridge.

Descriptions of Irish parties are invariably laced with euphemism. When Ronan O'Gara described his side's post-Twickenham shindig as "surprisingly tame", the knee-jerk temptation was to imagine something substantially more boisterous than, say, an evening of bridge.

The Ireland fly-half went on to say he "made up for it" on the following afternoon back home in Cork, and while further details remained between him and his fellow revellers, the suspicion is that the session would have written off the week for most ordinary individuals.

For one thing, O'Gara celebrated his 27th birthday last Sunday. For another, his part in England's downfall the day before was considerable, and personally cathartic considering his previous experiences at the world champions' HQ, principally the gut-wrenching loss of the 2000 Heineken Cup final with Munster. O'Gara and his province may yet return to Twickers in May for another crack at the European title; before then, and taking him at his word, the Six Nations has the clear-headed attention of a playmaker who is a past master at not getting carried away.

"We were obviously fearful of going to face England on their own ground," O'Gara said. "I must say there was an air of expectancy, or a small bit of fear of going into the unknown, and it brought out the best in us. The front five did well, which gave the back row and the backs a platform, and I thought we in the backs played well."

Ireland, after losing to France and then beating Wales, are in a Championship race. Close scrutiny of the points-difference column has unexpectedly come into play. A first Irish Triple Crown since 1985 - and only the seventh of all time - is firmly on the cards. But O'Gara, who recovered from striking a post with his first goal-kick against England to collect four penalties and the conversion of Girvan Dempsey's sumptuous try, is phlegmatic about the wider implications.

"The Championship hasn't been an issue," he said, after a midweek training get-together for the 31 players from which the squad to face Italy next Saturday will be chosen. "We're focusing on winning these games [against the Italians, followed by Scotland, both in Dublin]."

Is it wise to leave the accumulation of the necessary points until the Scotland match? "No," O'Gara said. "But points aren't the issue. Performance is the issue, and we'll focus on that. Results look after themselves if you get the performance right."

Given the nature of Ireland's most recent performance, and result, it seems temerarious to argue. O'Gara also possesses the inner confidence generated by wresting the No 10 jersey from David Humphreys. The pendulum of selection has been tick-tocking between them since O'Gara's debut in 2000, and the Munster man hasn't missed a minute in the current campaign. But that doesn't mean he is counting out his Ulster rival.

"I just control the things I can control," said O'Gara, "which basically means my own form. I don't ever have negative thoughts going into the game about whether I'm going to be replaced. It's never indicated beforehand whether there will be a substitution. I'm enjoying playing, but I'm sure there will be more twists and turns. David's a quality player. So it's important I focus on the things I can do."

While Mike Ford, once of rugby league, has earned plaudits for his work on Ireland's defence, he is less well known for giving O'Gara a new view of attack. "Mike used to be a half-back in league," O'Gara said, "which is similar enough to out-half in union, you know. On an individual level he has some good ideas for me."

The width of Ireland's game was fundamental to Demp-sey's crucial score: O'Gara, having been tied in to a ruck, was appreciative of the long outside passes by Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy. "Two beautiful passes, spot on," he said. "They're both very talented. You don't know what their next move is, which creates uncertainty in defences. The inside-centre role is not as familiar to Brian as 13, but the way Gordon is playing, you have to accommodate him somewhere."

The 22 members of the raiding party who secured the first win by a home union at Twickenham since 1994 have been supplemented by, among others, Geordan Murphy, who has been injured for most of the season.

"Italy will be a challenge in itself," said O'Gara. "They'll be on a high after beating Scotland, they're a physical team, and will look to get confrontational with us. It could be a long day in Lansdowne Road unless we maintain the standards of Twickenham."

Or possibly a couple of long nights if they do.

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