Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt said New Zealand are the firm favourites for the Rugby World Cup despite the Irish heading for Japan ranked top of the world for the first time in their history.
The 53-year-old New Zealander conceded it was a “nice label” to have and yet another first in many that the Irish have accrued since he took over in 2013.
Schmidt was speaking after Ireland had beaten Wales 19-10 to give him and inspirational captain Rory Best the perfect farewell in what was a final Test at Lansdowne Road for both of them.
Since Best took over the captaincy after the 2015 World Cup, the Irish have recorded two historic wins over the All Blacks and won the 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam, only the third in their history.
The task for Schmidt and Best – who not so long ago were under the hammer after a humiliating 57-15 thrashing by England at Twickenham – is to at least take Ireland into previously uncharted territory at a World Cup as they have yet to make the last four.
“I did not realize we were (No 1) till an interview after the game,” said Schmidt. “It is a label, a nice one, nice that it is the first time that we have been in that position.
“We have been lucky enough to tick enough firsts off through the years, but that label will not be relevant in Japan. We all know who are favorites for the World Cup and it is not us.”
Schmidt, who will step away from the game when the World Cup comes to an end, said All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will not be concerned at losing the world No 1 ranking.
“Knowing Steve and Ian Foster (his assistant) and some of the players it is far from their minds,” said Schmidt. “For them it is all about getting out and making the ball work and working hard for each other and they make a very good job of it.
“We acknowledge the quality they bring to the game of rugby.”
For 37-year-old Best – who had fought back the tears when the crowd roared for him at the final whistle – it was a relief that after losing the first two lineouts of the match, which had been a feature of the England game, the Irish scrum had got their act together in that department.
“James Ryan called the line-outs this week and it was Hendy (Iain Henderson) last week,” said Best. “It takes pressure off and breeds confidence. “Line outs you are so interdependent on each other and when it goes wrong you go jittery and you need someone to stand up and make the calls.
“The most disappointing thing about the England game was how we reacted to losing the line-outs, our heads went down and we did not play on in the action that followed those. There was a lot better reaction today.”
Schmidt, who enjoyed huge success prior to the Ireland job with Irish province Leinster, said he was already focussed on their first pool game with Scotland on September 22.
Best, who walked around the pitch with his three children taking the plaudits from the crowd after Ireland’s last win, said it had been great to bow out with a performance to be proud of. “Obviously this place is incredibly special and I have some wonderful memories,” he said.
“To get that reception from the supporters is wonderful and nice for my mum and dad and wife and three children. It means that over a long period of time you have done more things right than wrong.
“It was nice to get a standing ovation and applause but the ultimate goal is the World Cup.”