This weekend both the AFL, and the ARL/NRL, face a credibility test when it comes to the future of representative football.

The AFL’s Hall of Fame tribute game tomorrow has been the focus of a week long debate on playing a representative match during the premiership season, and the players’ commitment to it. But the “credibility” of the AFL’s one-off match pales into insignificance when compared with the challenge the ARL’s centenary rugby league test match faces tonight.

Rugby league has much more at stake despite the pedestrian efforts of officials to downplay the challenge international rugby league faces. Last season’s 57-0 thrashing of the Kiwis by the Kangaroos was a serious setback for rugby league. If anything like that score is repeated tonight, the credibility of the World Cup at the end of the season — not to mention its financial viability — will be at risk.

Despite a very expensive build up to tonight’s historic match at the Sydney Cricket Ground — for generations the home of rugby league — ticket sales have been poor, so much so that the ARL now says it would regard a crowd of 20,000 as “acceptable”. Nonsense! A crowd of 20,000 would be a serious embarrassment for the ARL and the international game. And it would again raise the reality that rugby league crowds in Sydney, especially at major stadiums, are on the decline. The embarrassment will be compounded by the revelation that ticket sales for the World Cup final in Brisbane next November already stand at 25,000.

There is a fascinating parallel in the lead up to both the AFL Hall of Fame tribute match and the ARL Centenary Test. And the parallel has nothing to do with the players, or even the head coaches. Much of the coverage this week has focussed on Victoria’s assistant coach, Kevin Sheedy, and the Kiwis’ assistant coach, Wayne Bennett.

Bennett is the only NRL coach with a record anywhere near that of Kevin Sheedy. And he is the only coach with a hope of ever equalling it. Kevin Sheedy’s coaching record extended over 27 years. Wayne Bennett is in his 21st year as a first grade coach, and it will extend for at least three more years when he moves to the St George-Illawarra Dragons in 2009. The media coverage this week on the “assistant” Kiwis coach has been extraordinary. But it might be enough to pull a few thousand more fans through the turnstiles. And the ARL needs all it can get.

If the crowd is less than 25,000 lots of questions will be asked, no least by long suffering NRL club coaches who have to negotiate a representative season that extends over six weeks or more.

By any comparison, AFL club coaches have an easy run when it comes to representative matches interfering with the premiership seasons, though listening to Leigh Matthews this week you would not think so.