Ireland kick off their international rugby league season this weekend when they take on Italy in Brescia.
All but one of the 18-man squad selected by coach Carl du Chenu took part in last month’s State of Origin series, in which the Northern Ireland Elks defeated the Republic of Ireland Eagles for the first time.
The selection signals a move by coaches towards picking more home-based players for the Ireland team in order to grow rugby league throughout the island.
The players will be fighting for inclusion in next month’s home international friendlies against Malta and Jamaica in Bray, and World Cup qualifiers away to Spain and at home to Russia, when more established internationals who play abroad will also be involved.
Coach Carl du Chenu said: “After a tough domestic season for the lads, we’ve selected a strong squad for our first international of 2016. There’s a good mix of youth and experience with several players stepping up from this year’s student team as well as hardened internationals like Casey Dunne and Wayne Kerr returning to the fold.
“Training has gone really well and we’re looking forward to playing our first ever international against Italy. This year is huge for international rugby league with the World Cup qualifiers just around the corner and the World Cup itself just over a year away.
“It’s really important that we hit the ground running with a strong performance against the Italians. A lot of these players will be looking to impress [head coach] Mark Aston and hopefully get selected for the more testing internationals.”
Ireland squad to play Italy in Brescia (Saturday, kick-off 6pm local time):
Rob Armstrong, Adam Boyce, Sam Boyd, Onisi Burekama, Matthew Cahoon, Adam Docherty, Casey Dunne, Cathal Evans, Gareth Gill, Chris Hall, Paddy James, James Kelly, Conor Mackey, Matt McKelvey, Alan McMahon, Connor Phillips, Wayne Kerr, Mikey Russell.