Fraser Brown: Sean Maitland is one of the most underrated players in the Northern Hemisphere and key to Scotland’s defensive resurgence

The Six Nations is a competition built on momentum and an enforced four-week break is exactly what Scotland wouldn’t have wanted after the narrow and bruising defeat by Wales but it’s the challenge that’s been laid down and I can’t wait to see how they respond against Ireland to get their title challenge back on track.

Sean Maitland was outstanding in the win over England and should return to the team against Ireland on Sunday. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS
Sean Maitland was outstanding in the win over England and should return to the team against Ireland on Sunday. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

Gregor Townsend will name his team today and I don’t think there will be many changes to the side he would have picked to face France two weeks ago.

Zander Fagerson’s suspension will most likely mean WP Nel coming in at tighthead and I think Sean Maitland will return to the starting XV after recovering from the knock that ruled him out of the Wales match. Sean has been one of the rocks of Scotland’s defensive resurgence over the last year. Brilliant under the high ball, he chases hard and rarely puts a foot wrong defensively. He is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated players in the Northern Hemisphere.

The game against England was one of his best ever performances, remarkable considering how little game time he’d had before the tournament, even more so when you think how off the pace the other Saracens players looked in the same match. Darcy Graham will probably have to make way for Maitland but it is not an easy decision. Darcy, Sean and fellow winger Duhan van der Merwe have all shown real signs of brilliance and the type of ruthless finishing which has made Scotland genuine title contenders.

Greig Laidlaw celebrates Scotland's last win over Ireland, at Murrayfield in 2017.

Elsewhere in the backline there is a decision to be made around who wears the 12 jersey. James Lang started against Wales after Cameron Redpath was ruled out with injury after England, but Sam Johnson has been playing well over the last few weeks for Glasgow. It hasn’t been an easy season for Sam. Injury ruled him out of the start of the season and the stop-start nature of rugby this year, with postponements, cancellations and isolation periods, has made it difficult for him to find a real consistency in his game. But over the last few weeks he has looked sharp in attack, carrying hard and direct, particularly off set piece, and his defence has always been an area of strength. He has also linked well with Finn Russell in the blue shirt, and I can see them continuing that partnership this weekend.

The forwards will stay largely unchanged with Jamie Ritchie returning after recovering from a hamstring problem and I’d expect Matt Fagerson to start again at No 8. Matt had his best game for Scotland in the win over England at Twickenham and he had some big moments against Wales as well. I’d love him to start stamping real authority onto games. He’s a strong, dynamic ball carrier and has the ability to hit like a train defensively. If he can involve himself more in games and impose himself on the opposition then he has the ability to change the game singlehandedly. He has an excellent opportunity to do just that this weekend against a powerful Irish backrow unit.

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Ireland will be without the talismanic flanker Peter O’Mahony who will be serving the final match of his three-game ban for the red card against Wales in the opening round. He will be a big loss, particularly at the lineout where he excels – it’s always difficult to win good, usable ball against him.

WP Nel is expected to replace the suspended Zander Fagerson against Ireland.

The basics of the game are so important at Test level and Ireland have always been strong in the set-piece. Their lineout play is first class but their scrum is equally strong. They are also ferocious at the breakdown and are very physical and direct with ball in hand. The power game you see from Leinster, Munster and Ulster all stems from being very direct up front so you have to try to match them physically. You must stop them on the gainline and slow the ball up at the breakdown.

We did that really well for most of the Six Nations game in Dublin last year. If you’d spoken to the Irish players afterwards they’d have said it was one of the most bruising Test matches they had played. Discipline will also play a significant role on Sunday. I would imagine that Scotland have been on the wrong side of the penalty count in a lot of the games against Ireland recently and Ireland are one of the best sides around at putting you into your own 22 and keeping the pressure on until they come away with points. It will be very important for Scotland to keep their discipline and ensure they don’t backup penalties or they will end up defending for long periods in their own half.

We last beat Ireland in 2017 and it was a huge moment in our development. It was a physical game and one that we should have probably won a lot more easily than we did. We left a lot of opportunities out on the pitch. A lot of praise rightly focuses on Greig Laidlaw, and his nerves of steel at the end as he slotted home two successive penalties to win, but just as much should go to the Murrayfield crowd.

The noise, the support and the belief that a packed BT Murrayfield generates lifts you on the pitch. It gives you that extra yard of pace, allows you to get up and give one last effort. It will be an empty stadium again this week but it won’t matter, every single player knows just how much support they have behind them, they loved seeing the home videos of supporters celebrating after the Twickenham victory and I know they will give it their all this weekend.

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