Michael Verney: 'Cathal McShane exit could be the tip of the iceberg in GAA's Australian drain game'
Unnecessary introduction of 'advanced mark' may damage football in more ways than one
With speculation around Cathal McShane's much-touted move to the AFL dominating the GAA conversation, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the GAA is continuing to shoot itself in the foot.
The club fixture crisis, a growing problem with a lack of volunteers at grassroots level and the county game dominating the GAA are just some of the major problems which president John Horan has on his plate.
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Instead of tackling those head on, however, there seems to be a fascination with making unnecessary changes and abruptly adapting playing rules with the introduction of the 'advanced mark' for 2020 a prime example.
Few were calling for such a radical change to be made and yet it sailed through at last October's Special Congress with 68.9 per cent of delegates voting in favour of a rule which has a strong Aussie Rules flavour.
Having had no 'mark' in Gaelic football up until three years ago, two separate mark rules now apply with catches from kick-outs inside the two 45-metre lines rewarded with an unopposed free, as are catches made by players inside the attacking '45.
Players inside the '45 who catch the ball cleanly from kicks outside the '45 - providing the ball travels 20 metres - can choose to play on but must signal with their hand if they wish to take the free instead (they have 15 seconds to take it) in what is a seismic change to the way the game is played.
With the attacking mark in operation last spring, McShane ripped All-Ireland champions Dublin to shreds in their league clash in Croke Park last March with an exquisite display of fielding.
If any scouts from the Brisbane Lions were watching, this would have superseded his impressive highlight reel from last summer's championship - when he finished joint top scorer with 3-48 and claimed an All-Star award at full-forward.
The Dubs simply had no answer as he adapted to the new rules in sensational style and this no doubt had some bearing on why a sizeable offer was put on the table from Down Under to secure his talents.
AFL contracts have rarely been handed to a 24-year-old from Ireland but as Gaelic football begins to mirror the Aussie version more and more with less and less of a disparity between the skills of the game, this could become a far more regular occurrence.
Whatever hope Tyrone have of lifting Sam Maguire this year will disappear should the Owen Roe's clubman accept the offer, as is expected, and it leaves them with a gaping void which is unlikely to be filled.
The GAA is treading on very thin ground by introducing rules from professional sports given that some players are inadvertently auditioning for a contract through their GAA exploits.
Marquee games are a showcase of everything good about the GAA, but they are also shop windows and glorified trial games for the AFL to see our brightest talents performing many of their skills in an ultra-competitive environment.
The tendency has normally been to tempt Irish teenagers to head Down Under - get them while young and mould them into AFL players - but McShane's departure could create a worrying trend and other counties will be quaking at the prospect of losing any of their key players. Conor McKenna, a team-mate of McShane with the Tyrone minors in 2013 who is heading into his sixth season with the Essendon Bombers, believes homesickness is the only thing holding Irish players back from striking it big in Australia.
McKenna is adamant that adapting to the oval ball isn't a problem and with players more adept at dealing with the demands of a new life in their twenties, there could be more lured over at a more mature age.
"The majority of Irish players are skilful enough and have enough ability to get used to a different game. The stats say that not a lot of Irish make it and it's more from the homesickness than not being able to play the game," McKenna said last month.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it were the thoughts of many when the advanced mark was given the green light with Dublin star Jack McCaffrey summing up most people's opinions when branding the change as "awful".
"It's a little step towards a much more stop-start game. One of my favourite players to watch at the moment is Con O'Callaghan, every time he gets the ball he just turns and goes straight at you," McCaffrey said.
"It would be a travesty if he was to turn into a player who just catches the ball and kicks it over the bar, which he can do and will do because it's a no-brainer."
The 2015 Footballer of the Year warned that football was turning into Aussie Rules and McShane's exit may just be the tip of the iceberg to open doors for others to follow suit and chase the professional dream.
There's nothing to stop an offer to a more mature David Clifford or O'Callaghan to pit their wits Down Under and, more luck to them, but the GAA shouldn't be needlessly feeding the Australian monster and encouraging our finest talents to be poached.