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.”
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