But the Wales coach believes he has the right players to make a mark against the Springboks in Bloemfontein this weekend and perhaps even add to the one triumph in 1999 at the Millennium Stadium.
Gatland said: "We want to earn the respect of the South Africans. I went back to New Zealand after the Six Nations and there was definitely a feeling that we have regained some respect for being European champions - especially given the way we played and the teams we beat.
"But this is a great chance against the world champions to show how much we have improved and we must not let ourselves down. I've said from the first day that's it's not necessarily about results straight away. "What's most important is that the Welsh people see these guys giving everything they have. We have a tough schedule with two games at altitude but all I can ask as a coach is that we give 100 per cent and make sure the Springboks come off the field knowing they have been involved in one hell of a game - that is what earns respect."
Wales are without eight members of that Grand Slam winning squad in Martyn Williams, Gavin Henson, Mike Phillips, Dwayne Peel, Lee Byrne, Robin Sowden-Taylor, Alix Popham and Huw Bennett.
That gives scrum-half Gareth Cooper, flanker Dafydd Jones and full-back Jamie Roberts big opportunities to cement their place in the Gatland revolution.
New South African coach Peter de Villiers has made ten changes from their World Cup final win over England last November.
Prop Brian Mujati and second row Andries Bekker make their debuts in a starting line-up that also includes Zimbabwe-born winger Tonderai Chavhanga.
Wales: J Roberts; M Jones, T Shanklin, S Parker, S Williams; S Jones, G Cooper; G Jenkins, M Rees, A Jones, I Gough, A-W Jones, J Thomas, D Jones, R Jones (capt)
Replacements: D Jones, R Hibbard, I Evans, G Delve, W Fury, J Hook, M Stoddart
South Africa: C Jantjes; T Chavhanga, A Jacobs, J de Villiers, B Habana; B James, B Conradie; G Steenkamp, J Smit (capt), B Mujati, B Botha, A Bekker, L Watson, J Smith, P Spies
Replacements: CJ van der Linde, B du Plessis, D Rossouw, R Pienaar, P Grant, P Montgomery, V Matfield