Has gap between north and south closed? Wales boss thinks so ...

Warren Gatland (Getty)
Warren Gatland (Getty)

Cardiff - Long and fractious has been the debate over the supposed rugby union divide between north and south. And never more relevant as teams enter a Rugby World Cup year.

Two-time defending World Cup champions New Zealand sit atop the standings, despite last weekend's loss to Ireland. Australia and South Africa have, in recent years, struggled against Europe's top nations, bucking the sentiment that northern hemisphere teams couldn't cope with the finest teams from south of the equator.

Wales face the Springboks on Saturday, with coach Warren Gatland, whose team are ranked third in World Rugby standings behind the All Blacks and Ireland, acknowledging that members of the Six Nations have made up significant ground.

"Over the last few years... you would like to think the gap of the southern hemisphere dominance has closed," said Gatland, who guided Wales to their first victory over Australia in a decade a fortnight ago.

"It is great for rugby and great for the World Cup."

But Gatland, a former Waikato and non-capped All Black hooker, said he failed to understand automatic criticism of New Zealand following their thrilling 16-9 loss in Dublin.

"You see the All Blacks lose one or two games and the people who have turned on them is quite incredible," he said.

"I look at that aghast. To me they are still the best team in the world."

Gatland added: "There could easily have been more northern hemisphere success in this autumn campaign," notably highlighting the Boks' injury-time 29-26 victory over France and their 26-20 win over Scotland last weekend.

"France were very unlucky against South Africa, leading 79 minutes on the clock and having a scrum in the South African 22.

"Scotland had a good performance last week and England were 15-0 up against the All Blacks.

"It is absolutely brilliant for rugby that we have got eight or nine teams who, if they perform well on the day, are capable of beating anybody."

South Africa have improved massively after a couple of nightmare seasons, coinciding with the appointments of Rassie Erasmus as head coach and black flank Siya Kolisi as captain.

Assistant Springbok coach Mzwandile Stick said there had been good squad rotation with one eye on next year's World Cup in Japan.

"We started a bit slow in June when we played against England and we knew that we have to give opportunities to players and let them play together as we increase the depth of our squad," Stick said.

"In that respect, we've seen a lot of progress and improvement in our squad, especially if you take into account that we've given plenty of chances to players since June as we try and increase our depth for the World Cup."

Wales are bidding for a ninth consecutive victory, their best streak since they won 10 in a row in 1999, and Stick warned that they would be doughty opponents at Cardiff's Principality Stadium on Saturday.

"They have a number of good performances and wins behind them during this month so we know it's going to be very tough," he said.

"Wales have a well-balanced team - they are good on attack, strong on defence and also have an impressive kicking game. However, we want to finish the tour on a positive note so we will give it our best effort."

Wales flanker Dan Lydiate said there had been a "good atmosphere" in the Welsh camp on the back of three wins in the autumn series, with a Springbok scalp offering up the possibility of a first-ever November sweep.

"Going into the last game, everyone's in good spirits, but we're under no illusions how hard it'll be on the weekend," Lydiate said.

"In recent games we've had good wins against South Africa, but they're a different outfit these days.

"They've had a new coach come in and he has really given them what looks like a new lease of life, they're enjoying their rugby and they seem definitely back into form as one of the top nations."

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