It’s been a strange old summer for the world rankings, changing hands between the All Blacks, Wales and now Ireland, but ultimately back-to-back wins over the Welsh (19-10 on Saturday) have delivered that ranking and dare fans of Joe Schmidt’s squad to dream again.
But despite their feat, the head coach – who will leave his post after the tournament in Japan – was keen to play down the label going into the competition.
“I didn’t realise we were (number one) until after the game, that’s how far away from our thoughts it was,” he said.
“It’s a label and it’s great to get; it’s the first time we have been in that position.
“We have been lucky enough to tick off a few firsts with this group but it’s not that relevant to anyone.”
It has not been all plain sailing for Ireland, however, enduring a tricky start to 2019 and being well-beaten by England at Twickenham last month.
Great win, lads! 👊
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) September 7, 2019
But they have nevertheless done enough to displace Steve Hansen’s All Blacks at the top of the rankings, achieving something never before done in their history largely thanks to their long-term form over the last two years.
It was the Guinness Six Nations in 2018 that marked the origins of their rise, easing past Warren Gatland’s Wales at Aviva Stadium before clinching a polished 24-15 win at Twickenham to secure the Grand Slam.
Schmidt claimed he ‘could not be prouder’ of his players after their triumph at headquarters, a result that was pivotal in fuelling Ireland’s rise over the following few months.
Their watershed 2-1 series win down under was the next step, the side’s first victory over the Wallabies since 1979 despite going 1-0 down after an 18-9 defeat in Brisbane – two thrillers in Melbourne and Sydney building history.
The autumn internationals rolled in next as Schmidt’s side convincingly dispatched Italy and Argentina in preparation for the arrival of the formidable All Blacks the following week.
A special day for these two 🙌 pic.twitter.com/9D5PXFfLxB
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) September 7, 2019
And history was made in Dublin last November, as the hosts ended their 113-year wait for a win over New Zealand on Irish soil in a result that prompted Hansen to hail them as the greatest team on the planet.
“It’s a big piece of history and one that we wanted to tick off here in Ireland and now we have done it,” man of the match Peter O’Mahony said that day.
“They’re (New Zealand) not the number one team in the world for nothing – we probably had to play our best game of this term and thankfully we managed to do that.”
Almost a year on and that title O’Mahony was alluding to has now changed hands, with Ireland coming through the Guinness Six Nations and that heavy defeat at Twickenham to officially become the best side in the world.
Tries from Furlong, Rob Kearney and man of the match James Ryan against Wales marked the culmination of their journey, confirming the label and sending Schmidt’s team to Asia with renewed confidence.
And despite the head coach playing down his side’s chances in Japan, Schmidt always has more than a few tricks up his sleeve and their phenomenal rise over the last two years means they are serious contenders.
Cardiff City Stadium will play host to the 2020 Guinness PRO14 Final on June 20 as one of the most exciting days in the club rugby calendar comes to Wales!
General sale tickets are available from http://bit.ly/PRO14Cardiff2020 and prices start at just £13 for concessions and £26 for adults (subject to booking fees), that’s a 15% early bird discount. Family ticket (2 adults / 2 children) prices begin at £64 and fans are encouraged to buy early to get the best value tickets.