Five things to look forward to: England spine, improved New Zealand, European Championship starts

International rugby league returns this weekend and there is a lot to get excited about.

International rugby league is back

Another season has come and passed, and although it is sad to not see any of our clubs in action for a few months – the international game is back and it is looking better than ever before.

England kick off their three-match Test series against New Zealand in Hull on Saturday in what should be an absolute humdinger of a game.

What also starts this weekend is the 2018 European Championship between Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France. A lot of eyes will be on the England and New Zealand Test on Saturday afternoon, but BBC Sport Online have offered fans the chance to see both, with the outlet streaming the games on their website.

The England spine

It will be interesting to see what kind of look Wayne Bennett goes for with his England selection on Saturday.

Full-backs Sam Tomkins and Jonny Lomax have both been selected in the 19-man squad to face the Kiwis, while half-backs Jake Connor, Richie Myler and George Williams have also been named in the side.

It is predicted that Lomax will start at full-back, with Connor and Lomax being in the halves. Hookers Josh Hodgson and Daryl Clark are expected to feature, too.

A selection headache can only be a good thing for England though. If you look back to 10 years ago, the England squad picked itself but it’s very difficult now and it shows just how much talent England have.

Ireland v Scotland

Ireland face old rivals Scotland in the opening game of the 2018 European Championship on Saturday, 2pm kick-off.

Both teams have got strong squads this year but with a couple of players missing through injury. Challenge Cup winner Lewis Tierney is involved in the squad, as are London Broncos duo Alex Walker and Ben Hellewell. Toronto Wolfpack stars Ryan Brierley and Matty Russell have also been named in John Duffy and Chris Chester’s side, so it is fair to say that the Bravehearts boast a dangerous attack.

As for Ireland, Bradford Bulls trio Joe Keyes, Gregg McNally and Ethan Ryan have all been selected in Stuart Littler’s side. Liam Finn and Scott Grix are expected to lead the Wolfhounds this autumn, while experienced Super League players George King and Tyrone McCarthy are also included. There is going to be fireworks in this one, that’s for sure.

Improved New Zealand outfit

When England eased past New Zealand 36-18 in Denver back in June, a lot of people thought that we would start to see the Kiwis slip away from Australia and England – but if anything, it has made them even stronger.

Michael Maguire took over the helm at New Zealand following their disastrous World Cup campaign last year and has reinvigorated the side. He has got a fine blend of youth and experience in the squad and they beat world champions Australia only a couple of weeks ago.

New Zealand’s captain Dallin Watene-Zelezniak looks to be a world class talent and can certainly follow in the footsteps of Benji Marshall and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in becoming Kiwi legends, so he is definitely one to watch in the series.

France v Wales

France face Wales in Carcassonne on Saturday and that kicks off at 5pm, not long after the end of the England-New Zealand match.

Les Chanticleers have named 10 Super League players in their squad and are the team with the most experience in the European Championships this time around. Challenge Cup winners Jason Baitieri, Tony Gigot, Mickael Goudemand and Benjamin Jullien are all set to feature, while Super League Grand Final winning duo Morgan Escare and Romain Navarrete could also play. They have the strongest team on paper by some distance.

Meanwhile, Gil Dudson and Lloyd White have both been named in the Wales squad. Experiences players like Dan Fleming, Jake Emmitt and Elliot Kear are also involved. John Kear’s side are the defending European champions, but Saturday’s game is going to be a tough test for them.

Saturday is going to be a fantastic day for rugby league.