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IRL chair Troy Grant has hailed the full-scale return of international rugby league in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres over the next two weeks as a shot in the arm the game needs after the COVID-19 pandemic.

After significant disruptions to the momentum that was building after the 2017 World Cup, the international game will be back in full swing with an unprecedented 11 fixtures to be played over the next week.

The action begins this weekend, with six men’s, women’s and wheelchair internationals played in the Northern Hemisphere, involving teams from England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, before moving to the Southern Hemisphere.

Fittingly, the first elite level rugby league played in New Zealand since the 2019 Oceania Cup will be a double-header featuring the Kiwis and Kiwi Ferns against Mate Ma’a Tonga men’s and women’s teams at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday, June 25.

This will be followed by the Pacific Test double-header at Campbelltown Stadium, with Samoa playing Cook Islands and Fiji taking on Papua New Guinea.

Lebanon and Malta will also meet in Sydney for the Elias-Fenech Shield – named in honour of former on-field rivals Ben Elias and Mario Fenech, who have Lebanese and Maltese heritage – at Belmore Sports Stadium on Wednesday, June 22.

Grant said the upcoming fixtures leading into the end-of-season World Cup in England would kick-start the revival of international rugby league after more than two years of limited Test action.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the upcoming fixtures on both sides of the world and particularly the first significant international matches being played in the Southern Hemisphere since 2020,” Grant said.

“The return of New Zealand and Tonga playing men’s and women’s Tests in Auckland, and the spectacle that we know that will be, is just going to be a real shot in the arm that was needed.

“The Pacific Test double-header in Campbelltown will be a wonderful celebration of the cultures of Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Cook Islands as the nations prepare for the World Cup in England at the end of the year.

“Lebanon will also begin their World Cup preparations with a Test against Malta in Sydney and in Europe we have six nations competing in men’s, women’s and wheelchair fixtures this weekend.

“The England men will continue their build up to the opening World Cup match against Samoa when they play a Combined Nations All Stars team comprising players drawn from nine nations, while France host Wales.

“France’s women and wheelchair teams play England, while the Ireland and Scotland wheelchair teams meet, and Wales play Italy in a women’s international.

“It’s wonderful to have such a jam-packed schedule after we have been largely starved of international fixtures for the past two years and you can feel the excitement growing as we look to the World Cup that will celebrate and launch international rugby league into a very prosperous future.”

Saturday, June 18

1.30pm (GMT): Ireland v Scotland wheelchair
Calderdale College, Halifax, England

3.15pm (GMT): England v France women
Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington, England

5.45pm (GMT): England v Combined Nations All Stars men
Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington, England

Sunday, June 19
pm (GMT): England v France wheelchair
Manchester Basketball Centre, Manchester, England

1pm (GMT): Wales v Italy women
Pandy Park, Cross Keys, Wales

3pm (CET): France v Wales men
Stade Municipal d’Albi France

Wednesday, June 22
7.30pm (AEST): Lebanon v Malta men
Belmore Sports Ground, Sydney, Australia

Saturday, June 25
3pm (NZT): New Zealand v Tonga women
Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland, NZ

5pm (NZT): New Zealand v Tonga men
Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland, NZ

5.40pm (AEST): Samoa v Cook Islands men
Campbelltown Sports Ground, Sydney, Australia

7.40pm (AEST): Fiji v Papua New Guinea
Campbelltown Sports Ground, Sydney, Australia