By Ed Elliot, PA, Dublin
Johnny Sexton says Ireland must emulate South Africa in lifting the Webb Ellis Cup before they can truly be regarded as the world’s best.
Andy Farrell’s men climbed to the top of the global rankings on the back of their stunning summer series win in New Zealand.
Ireland’s status will be given a stern examination on Saturday evening when the formidable Springboks – rugby’s reigning world champions – visit Dublin.
Captain Sexton admits the achievement puts a target on his side’s back but dismissed its significance as he insisted lifting silverware is all that matters.
“Honestly, it’s not something that we really talk about much,” he said. “It’s not a goal to become number one in the world. That might sound stupid.
“In some sports it is – golf, tennis – but in rugby the rankings matter once and it’s three years out from the World Cup (when the World Cup draw is made), which doesn’t make that much sense either.
“We don’t speak about being number one. To be number one in the world, you need to win the World Cup, that’s where the goals are.
“Obviously you want to be the best in Europe, you want to win the Six Nations, those are our goals; it’s nothing to do with being number one and I don’t think many teams read too much into it.
“I know the other teams will probably refer to us now trying to put pressure on it but we don’t speak about it.”
The tantalising Aviva Stadium clash kicks off Ireland’s autumn schedule, which also includes appointments with Fiji and Australia, and serves as a dress rehearsal for next September’s World Cup pool stage meeting in Paris.
While Sexton talked down the importance of the world rankings, he expects the Springboks to use it as a motivating factor as they attempt to “mess up” the hosts.
The influential fly-half believes Ireland must surpass the scintillating performances which toppled the All Blacks in order to mastermind another headline-grabbing victory.
“We have to give them the respect that they absolutely deserve,” the 37-year-old said of three-time world champions South Africa.
“They’re the best team in the world in terms of they’re world champions. They’re a top-class team.
“They’ve obviously won the World Cup, they beat the (British and Irish) Lions (in 2021) and had some big results over the last few years, so in terms of testing ourselves it’s huge.
“We need to bring our game and make sure we do it even better because when you have a couple of results like we did in the summer teams start to properly look at you and they go, ‘how are we going to mess up this Ireland team? How are we going to combat this?’.
“We’ve got to do it better and we’ve got to evolve a little bit and make sure we bring something new to the table.”
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Ireland have never progressed beyond the quarter-final stage at a World Cup.
Regardless of the result of his country’s first meeting with the Springboks since 2017, Sexton expects it to be a beneficial experience for future challenges.
“If we got a win on Saturday it would be great; if we don’t then we learn from it,” he said. “We’re going to learn both ways.
“We’re going to see what it’s like to play against this type of team, we haven’t played against them in a few years and I think it’s what we need.”