Captain Johnny Sexton says Ireland must keep striving for improvement in order to avoid complacency and a repeat of previous World Cup failings.
The in-form Irish are preparing to begin their autumn campaign against world champions South Africa, having shot to the top of the global rankings following a historic summer series win in New Zealand.
Ireland were tipped for big things at the 2019 World Cup in Japan on the back of Six Nations Grand Slam glory and victory over the All Blacks the previous year before slipping to a familiar quarter-final exit.
With the start of the 2023 tournament in France just over 10 months away, fly-half Sexton has credited the Irish coaching staff with increasing competition for places and not allowing established players to slide into their comfort zones.
Head coach Andy Farrell has been training with a squad of 49 in Dublin ahead of Saturday’s showdown with the Springboks, which is preceded by Friday evening’s fixture between an Ireland A team and an All Blacks XV.
“You’ve got to keep evolving, you’ve got to keep getting better,” said Sexton. “If you stay the same, other teams will pass you out.
“We need to build a real competition for places so that no one can get comfortable and that is exactly what the coaches are doing.
“They’re challenging us in how we play the game, they’re challenging us by putting all these extra fixtures in, with the Emerging Ireland tour, the Maori games, now the New Zealand A game, so all these guys are getting chances to impress the coaches and to play under the coaches, to listen and put what the coaches want out on the pitch.
“There were 50 players at training and I was thinking to myself 20 of them are going to be left at home for the World Cup.
“And I couldn’t pick who is going to be left at home, there are going to be some good players left out.
“That’s exactly where we want to be and keep cultivating. Those are the lessons we learnt that we’re implementing.”
Ireland and South Africa are poised to lock horns for the first time in five years before meeting again next September at the World Cup.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) November 1, 2022
While the pool stage fixture in Paris adds an extra dimension to the weekend clash, Sexton insists his attention is almost exclusively on short-term matters.
“I’m just trying to focus on what is straight in front of me,” said the 37-year-old Leinster player.
“I haven’t thought too much about the bigger picture. It’s a driving factor, but it’s not something I think about this week, for example.
“We have spoken about the World Cup of course and have that as the goal so we are always building towards that.
“We don’t refer to it week on week. It is very much focused on South Africa this week.”