Malcolm O'Kelly: Our fringe men have to stand tall
Former Leinster and Ireland second-row Malcolm O'Kelly has urged the province's fringe players to take their opportunities over the coming weeks.
Nineteen Leinster players have been included in Ireland's 38-man Six Nations squad and with four rounds of Pro12 action set to take place during the international window, O'Kelly expects to see several players putting their hand up for selection for the remainder of the season.
Leinster coach Matt O'Connor pointed to this stage of last season as the crucial period in their Pro12 success and O'Kelly believes that it won't be any different this time around.
"It's a very important period. Matt will have no choice but to give certain players a chance because his main players have been pulled away by Ireland," O'Kelly said.
"It's up to these guys to take their opportunity and make sure that results stay positive during the Six Nations.
"Last year, they were in the same position and we ended up winning all those games. It was a crucial period.
"Guys like Jack McGrath and Jack Conan really made a name for themselves this time last year and you'd maybe look at a guy like Tadhg Furlong who could get in the mix and impress."
Since the defeat to Munster in Limerick, Leinster are unbeaten in four games and have since sealed a Champions Cup quarter-final against Bath.
Despite the early-season woes, O'Kelly firmly believes that O'Connor's side have turned a corner, and the 40-year old, who made 183 appearances for Leinster across an 11-year career, maintained that the victory over Ulster was the pivotal moment.
"It was a worry but they really seem to have turned things around over Christmas, and the Ulster match was a watershed moment for them," he said.
"Leinster's form has been up and down all season but they find themselves with a home European quarter-final and fourth in the Pro12 table, so they have to be happy enough.
"Okay, they've had a few rocky results that we haven't been used to but they've also had a huge injury toll and a lot of those guys are coming back now in the Six Nations. Rugby is like any other professional sport, it's performance-driven and you answer to your results.
"Some results didn't go our way but it was the performance that was probably most disappointing," O'Kelly admitted.
"It all culminated in the Ospreys game at home. It was a dour affair when you would have really liked to have seen them have a cut, but maybe the confidence wasn't there.
"You want supporters to demand a certain level of performance and I think the players were aware of that all along and they've reacted really well to it.
"They really came good and they had 40 brilliant minutes against Wasps. But the important thing now is to harness that level of performance and find what it is that allows them to play as well as that, because there's some huge games still left."
Despite the criticism that was aimed at the coaching staff earlier in the season, O'Kelly was quick to reiterate that the players are 100pc behind O'Connor, while he was also keen to highlight the quality and depth of the young players emerging in the province.
"There's so many young guys coming through and you want to make sure that they're being developed, which they are," he said.
"You have guys like Girvan Dempsey and John Fogarty making sure of that and that's how you know you're heading in the right direction."