Wales vs. South Africa: Key Battles to Watch

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistNovember 8, 2013

Wales vs. South Africa: Key Battles to Watch

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    In over a century of playing international rugby against South Africa, Wales have only managed to beat their Southern Hemisphere opponents once, losing on 24 occasions and drawing the other.

    That one victory might have come in 1999, but the Welsh will attempt to create a more recent example this weekend when they welcome the Springboks to the Millennium Stadium.

    In the last four encounters between these two teams, no match has been decided by a margin of more than five points, showing just how tight the difference has been in their standards.

    With that being the case, it's the little differences that make the biggest impact, and several individual battles stand to tell the tale of Saturday's Cardiff clash.

1. Rhys Priestland vs. Morne Steyn

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    In the lead-up to Saturday's fixture, there was a debate as to whether it would be Rhys Priestland or Dan Biggar who won the race for Wales' No. 10 jersey.

    With the Ospreys man not even making the squad, however, it's Priestland who gets the nod at fly-half, ready to once again aim to fulfil the expectations that generations of great Welsh stars in that position have built up.

    Opposite the 26-year-old is one of the most seasoned playmakers in South Africa rugby, Morne Steyn, who was among the most consistent tools at Heyneke Meyer's disposal during the Rugby Championship.

    Steyn is among the most reliable players in the world from the tee, but Priestland has the advantage of not having to kick from range for his side, Leigh Halfpenny likely to be taking care of those duties.

    What will be essential is how Priestland handles the physical aspect, as well as which No. 10 we can expect to see gain more territory kicking out of hand.

2. Gethin Jenkins vs. Frans Malherbe

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    There isn't a more distinct battle between the experienced clashing against the inexperienced this weekend than Gethin Jenkins' front-row clash against Frans Malherbe, receiving his first international cap.

    Coming up to a century of caps himself, Jenkins' achievement dwarf those of his tighthead opponent on Saturday, and the gulf in Test preparation could ultimately play a massive role at both the set piece and open play.

    That being said, 22-year-old Malherbeis fully deserving of his call-up after some impressive form of late, specifically impressing as his Western Province side made their way to this year's Currie Cup final.

3. Leigh Halfpenny vs. Pat Lambie

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    With Zane Kirchner dropping out of the South Africa squad, Pat Lambie returns to Meyer's side as first-choice fullback and has a monumental task in overcoming his opposite man this Saturday.

    This summer saw Leigh Halfpenny become the highest points scorer on a single British and Irish Lions tour, but the challenge of the Springboks should be more than anything Australia was able to throw at the Cardiff Blues star.

    With two kicking fly-halves in play, the high ball is set to be a prominent part of play at the Millennium Stadium and it will be one of these two who decide just which side has more governance over the airways.

    That being said, neither speedster is aghast to the idea of falling into the line and attacking with ball in hand, either, making for an even more interesting tug-of-war.

4. Scott Williams vs. Jean De Villiers

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    With Jamie Roberts absent through injury, Scott Williams is one Scarlets player coming into this Wales side and, like club teammate Priestland, needs to take control of yet another opportunity to make an impact on the international stage.

    The centre has received his chances under Gatland in the past, but has always ultimately been outshone by his peers, unfortunate to be playing in a position with such competition for places.

    This weekend is a tough ask of the 23-year-old, however, considering Williams is going up against one of the best centres in the world, Jean de Villiers.

    South Africa relied on their veteran for a lot of their Rugby Championship success and De Villiers was unfortunate not to captain his team to a historic win over New Zealand in Round Six of the competition.

    With a 2015 Rugby World Cup place in his sights, however, the playmaker will look to take advantage of the relative inexperience of his Welsh counterpart, although Williams' club form this season ha shown off some of his extremely explosive qualities.

5. George North vs. Bryan Habana

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    The last time George North took to the international stage was during the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia, and it was there that the winger enacted the monstrous act of strength against Israel Folau, seen above.

    Since then, the rampaging speedster has been in good form for Northampton Saints, despite not scoring his career there with the barrage of tries some may have been expecting.

    This weekend presents a delectable encounter between North and Bryan Habana, undoubtedly two of the best wing talents in the world and a pair who might find themselves in the dream teams of many were one to make an ideal XV.

    More than just a battle of speed, though, there will be a myriad of factors affecting which of these two emerges triumphant including the success of the respective centre partnerships inside them and territory kicking.

    All complexities aside, this is at its core a battle between two figures who are capable of lighting up any pitch on their day, making for an epic clash when North and Habana clash in the Welsh capital.