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Winning the Rugby World Cup is what counts not ranking for Ireland’s Sexton

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton. Photo: Marty Melville/AFP

Ireland need to emulate their opponents this weekend South Africa and win the Rugby World Cup if they are to merit being called the best team in the world, captain Johnny Sexton said on Tuesday.

The 37-year-old iconic fly-half inspired his side to a historic series win in New Zealand in July which saw them rise to the top of the rankings.

“Honestly, it’s not something that we really talk about much,” Sexton told reporters.

“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 (needing to be in the top eight for the pool draw) when they matter, 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.”

Sexton said only trophies counted — he was pivotal to the 2018 Six Nations Grand Slam triunph — even if other teams might try and talk up Ireland being number one.   

“Obviously you want to be the best in Europe, you want to win the Six Nations, those are our goals,” said.

“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 us but we don’t speak about it.”

‘He’s unpredictable’

Sexton said they would give South Africa “the respect they deserve” and admitted there is a target on Ireland’s back after their success in New Zealand.

“When you have a couple of results like we did in the summer teams start properly look at you and they go, ‘how are we going to mess up this Ireland team? How are we combat this?’,” he said.

“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.”

Adding extra flavour to Saturday’s clash in Dublin is that they are in the same pool at next year’s World Cup — Scotland’s presence making it a tough ask to finish in the top two to progress.

He is also mindful of Ireland’s disappointing record at the quadrennial showpiece having never reached the semi-finals — South Africa have by contrast won it three times.    

“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 learn about South Africa, 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,” he added.

Sexton’s wealth of experience at fly-half is in stark contrast to his Springbok opposite number on Saturday, Damian Willemse, who has started just two Tests in the position.

Willemse, 24, got the playmaker role because first choice Handre Pollard is recovering from a knee operation and understudy Elton Jantjies is dealing with personal problems.

“He’s only played a couple of games at 10 for South Africa but he’s unpredictable,” said Sexton.

“He’s got fantastic footwork, he has a good kicking game, he’s strong, he’s fast obviously.

“Some traits that you wouldn’t normally associate with a 10 but he’s an excellent player.”

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