Joe Schmidt has brushed off Ireland topping the world rankings for the first time as irrelevant to the World Cup.
Ireland climbed to the summit of World Rugby’s rankings for the first time in Schmidt’s final match as head coach in Dublin, the hosts seeing off Wales 19-10.
Schmidt inherited an Ireland side languishing eighth in the world in 2013 and has turned them into a northern hemisphere powerhouse, and the Kiwi coach enjoyed an emotional last hurrah at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The 53-year-old insisted afterwards, however, that back-to-back defending champions New Zealand remain the team to beat at the World Cup.
“I didn’t even realise we were number one until the post-match interview,” said Schmidt.
“That’s how far away from our thoughts it’s been. It’s a label, it’s a nice label to get, and it’s a nice first time that we’ve been in that position.
“We have been lucky enough to tick off a few firsts with this group in the last six and a half years. But that label is not going to be relevant to anyone.
“We all know who the favourites are for the Rugby World Cup, and it’s not us.”
Ireland’s stunning 16-9 win over New Zealand in November, their first over the All Blacks in Dublin, has proved central to their ascent to the top of the globe’s standings.
Schmidt oversaw their maiden victory over the All Blacks too, the 40-29 triumph in Chicago in 2016, ending a 111-year wait for a win over the much-vaunted Kiwis.
The Aviva Stadium offered lasting and rapturous appreciation to both Schmidt and captain Rory Best, who will hang up his boots after the World Cup and will too not turn out in Dublin again.
New Zealand boss Steve Hansen met Ireland’s win over the All Blacks in November by installing Schmidt’s men as the world’s best team – and immediately challenged the Irish to cope with the associated pressure.
Ireland slumped from their 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam to a third-place finish this term and were thumped in a record 57-15 defeat by England at Twickenham earlier this month.
Saturday’s morale-boosting win and performance against Wales resurrects hopes that Ireland can pass the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in Japan though, with the squad jetting out on Wednesday.
Asked if it suits New Zealand to shift the pressure elsewhere with Ireland sitting at the top of the rankings, Schmidt said: “Yeah, again, knowing Steve (Hansen) and Ian Foster and their coaching staff and some of the players well, for them, it’s far from their minds.
“They are very process-focused, the All Blacks. For them it is about getting out, making the ball work and working hard for each other.
“And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, they do a pretty good job of it. And we’d acknowledge the quality that they bring to World Rugby.”
Best’s captaincy came under fire in the wake of that hefty Twickenham reverse, but Schmidt has kept faith with the evergreen 37-year-old.
And the Ulster stalwart delivered a classic performance in Saturday’s victory.
Tearfully charting his 14 years in the Test arena at the end of his final turn in Dublin, Best said: “It seems a long time ago since I came off the bench and came down into the corner for a scrum alongside my brother (Simon).
“Those are the things that you remember, the little bits and pieces, the trips to the stadium on the bus, the moments after the game when you are looking around the dressing room and everyone is wrecked and you have given it all for this jersey.
“These moments are made special by your team, your family and by so many people.
“Today was really, really important for us as a team to make sure that we took a step forward from last week. We know we have a long, long way to go.
“It was a very efficient performance against a quality side. It would be very remiss of me not to mention a coach that came into Ireland a good few years ago with Leinster; with Ireland he has transformed the international game here.
“I have been very privileged to work with him both as a player and a captain. I can’t be grateful enough for everything that Joe Schmidt has done for me as a player, the team and the country.”
World Cup-winner Wilkinson hailed boss Eddie Jones for taking his players “to the edge” in the same way as Sir Clive Woodward in the build-up to that 2003 triumph.
The former England fly-half believes the class of 2019 boasts a backline full of rare-breed talents that can strike fear into opponents in Japan.
England will launch their World Cup bid against Tonga on September 22, with former Newcastle and Toulon fly-half Wilkinson backing Jones’ men to peak at the right time.
“The momentum is rolling, they are peaking,” Wilkinson told the PA news agency. “I’d definitely like to think they can win it.
“What’s impressed me most is that every time they get a chance to regroup they always come back stronger.
“That doesn’t mean it always goes perfectly. But every time they regroup the next performance is huge, and they are very good at building momentum.
“They’re constantly coming back bigger and stronger, and reinventing themselves, and for me, that’s the key.
“And teams will have to do that in this World Cup, it won’t just be a straight run of wins.
“That ability to take it all in, absorb it, say ‘who cares, what do we do next’? That’s key.”
Woodward famously left no stone unturned en route to England’s 2003 World Cup triumph, and now Wilkinson sees parallels with former Australia boss Jones.
Wilkinson has spent time in the England camp as an occasional skills coach, and believes Jones’ abrasive edge pushes players to reach their full potential.
“The key for a coach is setting the environment for the players,” said Wilkinson, speaking as a Land Rover ambassador.
“That involves clarity but also that everyone is important, whether that’s a junior coming in for a few sessions, or the captain.
“The next thing is that guys feel they are being improved, and thirdly that guys feel they can still explore – not just hold on to their position, but that they can feel like they can just let it all go.
“They need to feel that there’s a guy constantly challenging them to let it go, challenging you to go to the edge where you don’t know what’s on the other side and to step into that space.
“Eddie challenges, that’s the spiky side, he doesn’t let people become comfortable.
“So if you’re looking for a comfortable ride then that’s going to be difficult, but if you’re looking for a career where you can come out the other side of it and say ‘jeez, I went there and I found out what I was capable of’, then he’s the guy you want.
“We had that in 2003. And we had a beautiful environment where guys were motivated and encouraged to explore, and not to play it safe.
“There’s nothing better than someone there who’s actually willing to give you a living example of saying ‘you know what, I can deal with all consequences’. That allows you to go out there and give it all you’ve got.”
England boast a litany of backline playmakers, with George Ford, Owen Farrell, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly all stellar creative talents.
Wilkinson believes England’s blend could even be the envy of the likes of back-to-back world champions New Zealand.
“The way the game is now that second decision-maker can’t just be a second fly-half, he has to have enough about him to be able to move in contact, to offload, to be a physical threat, not just another decision-maker and ball player,” said Wilkinson.
“So guys like Farrell and Slade, they are quite rare breeds, to be big enough and strong enough but also to be able to take a step back and direct things too.
“That rare breed really opens up some options. And outside that there’s another rare breed in Manu Tuilagi, who if you leave him half an arm you’ve got no chance.
“So it’s a lovely balance to have. And one we might have looked at New Zealand or other teams in the past and thought ‘wouldn’t it be lovely to have that’, and now we do.
“Outside that too we’ve got Jonny May and Joe Cokanasiga, who are not just finishers they are get-out options too, they are power runners, and in some cases extra forwards too.
“With the decision-makers and the threat of Tuilagi, it’s a big threat, and provided they all stay fit, then why not? It could be a great World Cup.”
Brian O’Driscoll insists that Ireland lock Devin Toner’s World Cup omission “beggars belief”.
Former Ireland skipper O’Driscoll admitted to being left nonplussed by Joe Schmidt’s decision to select Munster’s Jean Kleyn ahead of lineout boss Toner.
Ireland named their 31-man World Cup squad on Monday, with 33-year-old Toner the glaring absentee.
Former British & Irish Lions captain O’Driscoll believes Leinster stalwart Toner could have proved crucial to Ireland’s lineout at the World Cup, but still backed boss Schmidt to steer his side back to top form.
“I think there was always going to be a big omission, such is the strength in depth,” O’Driscoll told the PA news agency.
“I guess no-one saw Devin Toner being left out. And it kind of beggars belief that if the lineout is malfunctioning you then don’t include your tallest player and your best lineout operator.
“He’s the most capped player under Joe Schmidt, the go-to guy for big games.
“And only 10 months ago he was dominating the lineout in that big victory against the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium. So it’s quite the fall from grace.
“And obviously Joe Schmidt sees something in Jean Kleyn, different player from Devin Toner, a big scrummager and maybe a meatier ball carrier.
“But if I was Devin Toner I’d be feeling very sorry for myself, and wondering whether it was justified.”
Toner has started 50 of Schmidt’s 67 Test matches at the Ireland helm, and produced a fine showing in the 16-9 win over back-to-back world champions New Zealand in Dublin in November.
Munster’s South Africa-born lock Kleyn only qualified on residency for Ireland two days before his Test debut, against Italy in August.
But now the 26-year-old has been thrust into Ireland’s final World Cup group, with Schmidt valuing his scrummaging ability and aggression around the field.
O’Driscoll believes Toner could yet wind up at the World Cup however, should any injuries strike the Ireland camp.
Schmidt’s side will complete their warm-up schedule by hosting Wales in Dublin on Saturday, before opening their Pool A campaign against Scotland on September 22.
Asked if a discarded player can ever state their selection arguments to a coach, O’Driscoll said: “I think you have to be careful with how honest you are, there’s a chance of injuries and you don’t want to alienate yourself by putting your foot in your mouth and saying something you can’t take back.
“You can be honest and say ‘I think you’ve made a bad decision’, but ultimately it’s not going to change his mind.
“So you’ve got to deal with the disappointment and stay fit because you never know what’s around the corner.”
Ireland slumped to a record 57-15 loss to England at Twickenham two weeks ago, causing external alarm amid their World Cup preparations.
O’Driscoll enjoyed years of success under Schmidt at first Leinster and then Ireland, and backed the savvy Kiwi boss to roll a few more trademark trick plays once the Japanese global battle gets into full swing.
“Undoubtedly Joe’s still got a few more tricks up his sleeve,” said O’Driscoll, speaking as a Land Rover ambassador.
“You would have been a bit more comfortable if you’d seen a little bit more rhythm to the team, particularly in phase plays.
“But I think some of the launch plays he’s got planned, some we’ll have seen in play books three or four years ago, others we’ll never have seen before.
“So I’m excited as an analyst to go and watch that, and see how he manipulates defences to then get them to do something that they can counter.
“And that’s where he separates himself from the rest of the coaching world: the amount of footage he’s watched, and the detail that he goes through, he’s able to see patterns and put things into effect to counter opponents.”