Wales v South Africa: Warren Gatland's side 'narrowing the gap'

By Ross HarriesScrum V
Wales players
Wales take on South Africa at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday
Autumn internationals: Wales v South Africa
Venue: Millennium Stadium Date: Sat 29 November Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Coverage: Watch live on BBC One, BBC One HD, online, mobiles and BBC Sport app from 14:00 GMT; live commentary on BBC Radio Wales, Radio Cymru & online; updates on BBC Radio 5 live; text commentary on BBC Sport website and mobiles.

South Africa and New Zealand are the best two teams in the world, and have been for some time.

The main difference between them is that while South Africa are very good at what they do, New Zealand are very, very good at everything.

It means when one thing does not work, they try another and almost always prevail.

With South Africa you generally know what you're going to get. Big, hard men running hard and straight at you. Big, hard men marching you backwards in the scrum. Big, hard men forming irresistible driving mauls and powering inevitably towards your try line.

Predictable? Yes. Impossible to stop? Almost. But if you can contain them, if you can absorb their bone-crunching physicality, then you do have a chance of beating them.

Wales v South Africa: Scrum V highlights' Boks threat

And on that front, Wales will be heartened by the solidity of their defence in the 34-16 defeat by New Zealand. That may seem an odd statement, given that Wales leaked five tries, but most of them were due to lucky bounces and individual errors. The structure remained largely intact.

There had been signs, during the Rugby Championship, that Boks coach Heyneke Meyer was looking to inject a little razzle-dazzle to his team - to add a little rapier to complement the hammer.

And the promotion of Handre Pollard from Under-20s starlet to senior fly-half seemed to add a little devilry to the South African attack. But it proved a fleeting cameo and the team seem to have lost their spark during their autumn tour.

I was at the South Africa team announcement on Wednesday and I was struck, as always, by their courtesy.

Wales v South Africa
8 November 2008: Wales 15-20 South Africa - Millennium Stadium - report
13 November 2010: Wales 25-29 South Africa - Millennium Stadium -report
11 September 2011: South Africa 17-16 Wales - Wellington - report
9 November 2013: Wales 15-24 South Africa - Millennium Stadium -report
14 June 2014: South Africa 38-16 Wales - Durban - report
21 June 2014: South Africa 31-30 Wales - Nelspruit -report

To a man they were humble, gracious and polite. But that politeness does not extend to the field of play and never has.

One of the enduring images of last year's autumn test when South Africa beat Wales 24-15 was that of the hooker, Bismarck du Plessis, rampaging across the Millennium Stadium pitch, scattering Welsh defenders like skittles, laying them splayed out on the turf during the build-up to Jean de Villiers' try.

Whatever happened to the days when hookers were short, tubby guys who dangled between the props?

South Africa will be keen to exert this physical dominance on Saturday and will fancy their chances against what has been perceived as a weakened Wales front row.

Paul James and Richard Hibbard are Wales' best scrummaging loose-head and best scrummaging hooker respectively.

Their decision to play their club rugby in England has rendered them ineligible for this test, falling as it does outside of the World Rugby international match window.

Highlights: Wales 16-34 New Zealand

But Gethin Jenkins will return to the breach and it is worth remembering that he put an almost superhuman performance in during the summer, when Wales were denied their first ever victory on South African soil in a cruel 31-30 defeat.

South Africa, too, are missing several first-choice players - their France-based stars such as Bryan Habana have been called back to the Top 14, and fellow wing JP Pietersen has been summoned back to Japan.

But I am not sure there's such a thing as a weak South African team and Wales' record against the Springboks is testament to that.

Technically it is worse than their record against New Zealand, having only actually beaten the Boks once.

That 29-19 victory came on 26 June, 1999 on the day the Millennium Stadium opened for business, and that solitary victory has been followed by 16 straight defeats. But at least the footage is in colour - unlike the film of Wales' last win over the All Blacks in 1953.

But, as with their record against Australia, the gap is narrowing. Six of the last seven meetings have been decided by a margin of 10 points or fewer, and the last meeting by a single point.

Wing Bryan Habana is one of several Springboks players unavailable to face Wales
Wing Bryan Habana is one of several Springboks players unavailable to face Wales

It is a long way from the humiliation of the 96-13 defeat in 1998 when only a spilled ball over the line spared Wales the ignominy of conceding 100 points. Those days, mercifully, are behind us. This is a new era.

On Wednesday I asked flanker Marcell Coetzee which team was most desperate for victory this Saturday.

Wales, to end their southern hemisphere hoodoo? Or the Boks to avoid having to stew over a defeat during their long off-season.

He said that this game was the most important of their year and that it would define their season.

But it could come to define Warren Gatland's tenure.

Win and the psychological wall would come crumbling down. Lose and Wales enter a World Cup having not beaten one of the game's big three in the four years since the last one.

Pressure? What pressure?