Strength, depth, wins: Why Wales had rugby's best November

With four wins out of four, Wales enjoyed their most successful November ever -- even if the face of captain Alun Wyn Jones suggests otherwise. Warren Little/Getty Images

CARDIFF -- World Cups aren't won 12 months before the tournament, but statements can be made and in front of a raucous home crowd, Wales put away South Africa to definitively show that they have the strength, and depth, to challenge anyone in Japan next year.

Ireland may have beaten New Zealand last weekend to become the No.1 side in rugby in all but name, but there is certainly a case to be made for Wales having had the best November out of all of the world's elite. Played four, won four - a clean sweep in the northern hemisphere's autumn, for the first time in their history. Only Ireland have done the same this month, but their schedule was so heavily centred around the All Blacks that their other fixtures became an uncompetitive sideshow.

Wales, on the other hand, dispatched Scotland, ended their hoodoo against Australia, put 74 points past Tonga and have now dismantled the Springboks. They beat South Africa not because of one man, or two or three, or even 15. They won because of the unprecedented strength in depth that Warren Gatland has built over the past 18 months. 38 players used this month, and that's without considering the injured Taulupe Faletau, Josh Navidi, Samson Lee and Scott Williams. It's been a long process -- and it certainly hasn't all been straightforward -- but this might have been this squad's coming-of-age moment.

Ellis Jenkins was the man of match against South Africa, yet wasn't even meant to be in the XV at the start of the day. Called into the team following the late injury to Dan Lydiate, he stole the show at No.6 and was everywhere, setting up the opening score with a bursting run at one end, before holding the Springboks at bay with determined defence at the other.

It would have taken a lot to dampen Welsh spirits at full-time, but seeing Jenkins being stretchered off the pitch and hearing the news of a potential ACL injury certainly will. Jenkins should have been rewarded for this performance with a starting spot at the Six Nations in February, but he'll now spend the foreseeable future in rehab, a reminder of how cruel sport can be.

But elsewhere, others were making the most of their opportunities as well. Liam Williams looked at home as he filled in for Leigh Halfpenny at fullback, Aaron Wainwright -- making only his third international appearance -- stepped up to the bench following Lydiate's injury and was immense once called into the fray. Gareth Anscombe had his most impressive and productive display at No.10, before Dan Biggar replaced him from the bench and used all his experience to see the game out in the tense closing stages.

And it wasn't just Biggar who came off the bench to make a difference. Elliot Dee and Rob Evans continued the strong work of Ken Owens and Tomas Francis. Tomas Williams and Owen Watkin too allowed the Welsh to maintain their intensity late on. This was a collective effort. "Our bench had a significant impact in all our games," Gatland said afterwards. "We've got a squad to be really proud of."

It took around five minutes for Wales to settle but they were brilliant once they did. They met South Africa head on and were unrelenting against what is perhaps the most physical side in world rugby. The immovable Alun Wyn Jones led the charge as Wales forced South Africa into their own half before the damage was done in a stunning 10-minute spell.

Their forwards, in particular, put in a heroic shift. From Jenkins to Owens, from Nicky Smith to Francis, they looked the Springboks in the eyes and said today is not your day. It was Jenkins who did the running for the opening score, breaking through the South Africa line before setting up Francis, who crossed for his first Wales try. Unrelenting, they came again. It was hooker Owens this time who drove through, forcing the scrum under the posts and driving the Springboks back inside their area. From there, the backs took over. Anscombe's lofted pass setting up Williams who danced inside two players before diving over.

South Africa were rattled. Eben Etzebeth -- back from injury but starting from the bench -- was hauled onto the field, making a sizeable pack even bigger. The Springboks were never behind last week in Edinburgh against Scotland but were now needing to chase the game.

Then, the defence. Wales were perhaps fortunate that South Africa's youthful scrum-half Embrose Papier spilled the ball as he broke clear, with nothing but grass in front of him, but from there the Welsh were resolute as they held on before halftime.

As the Springboks moved it right, Jesse Kriel looked certain to score as he drove over the line, but Jenkins was there to stop him, the ball, mere inches from the turf, locked between his forearm and bulging bicep in one massive, surging effort. He refused to let Kriel through, Wales refused to let South Africa score. It forced the scrum but again Wales stood strong, eventually turning the ball over. The visitors trudged off the field without either a try or a three-pointer, and with their tails between their legs after coming into the match on such a high following wins in Paris and Edinburgh.

"We built this up as a cup final," Wales captain Wyn Jones said. "We started autumn relatively easy and we carried the momentum on to the final game. The character and momentum was the biggest thing for me."

Wales needed every inch of that character as South Africa came out on the offensive in the second half. The Springboks called upon their own bench, who certainly freshened them up. Kriel eventually crossed over after South Africa moved it from left to right, to back again following a lineout. There was no last-gasp acts of heroism in defence, this time.

Biggar came on shortly afterwards and was sensational in helping Wales see out the game. Anscombe was excellent at No.10, but Biggar knew when to slow things down and he knew when to speed things up, forcing the two decisive penalties on the 68th and 71st minute marks. On both occasions Biggar also held his nerve from the tee, extending Wales' lead to nine points with less than 10 minutes to go.

"The scoreline reflected the game," South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus admitted. "There were glimpses of chances for us at the end, but on the day they were just better. When you look at where Wales are as a team, No.3 in the world, they showed that today."

It was a strange end to what was an overall encouraging month for the Springboks, but they were up against a Wales side who knew how hard a game this would be. That Gatland called South Africa their "toughest match" of the series afterwards is a compliment in itself.

But this result is about Wales. Nine wins in a row now, they will travel to Italy and then France early next year as they attempt to equal their best-ever streak of 11 consecutive wins. After that, England in Cardiff for a potentially record-breaking 12th win. The coming year has the potential to be a historic one for Wales, as Gatland's reign draws to an end.

"It's my last 12 months and we'd like to finish on a high," Gatland said, as the post-match discussion inevitably drifted towards the World Cup.

They have the momentum, they have the squad: could it really be their year?