When Leo Cullen began preparing for the upcoming Guinness Pro14 season, Devin Toner was one of a number of Leinster players he expected to be without due to World Cup commitments.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt named 14 Leinster players in his 31-man squad for Japan, but the major talking point was the decision to leave the towering lock at home.

The 67-cap international had been a mainstay under Schmidt, but was overlooked for the World Cup and following an intensive Ireland pre-season, is back with his provincial colleagues ahead of preparations for the opening fixture of the season, away to Benetton on Saturday week.

"It was definitely a surprise because Dev has been such a key figure with Ireland over the last number of years," Cullen told RTÉ Sport at the launch of the new Pro 14 season. "It just shows the strength in depth that is there at the moment and it’s a competitive space.

"There are a lot of good players that are coming back to the provinces that aren't going to the World Cup and I think it is a great reflection of what is going on in the provinces.

"You have to make some serious calls within positions. There are complex decisions to be made with the restrictions of 31. It’s not straight forward because of the physical demands and tight turnarounds."

Ross Byrne and Dave Kearney were other Leinster men to get disappointing news from Schmidt, but Cullen insists that provincial duty allows the players get some valuable game time with the possibility of linking up with the Ireland squad in Japan.

"Dev is very resilient, similar to Ross Byrne and Dave Kearney also. They have been really positive since they came back. They just have to get out and prove their form on the field.

"There's no point in feeling too sorry for themselves, they have an opportunity to kick on with Leinster during this period and be ready, because if a call comes their way, and players will get injured at the World Cup, everyone needs to be ready."

Everyone can say you are missing players, but that is positive in many ways

Four years ago, Cullen took over as Leinster head coach during a World Cup year, something he admits was "challenging" at the time.

It does however provide opportunities to develop the squad with new faces arriving and others having departed in the close season.

"It’s exciting to see how they push on. Everyone can say you are missing players, but that is positive in many ways.

"As coaches we get to spend a lot more time with some of our Academy players and younger players coming in. We get to know them that little bit better and gauge what it is they want with their time in Leinster

"Guys can express themselves that little bit more."

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