Long break likely to hinder Kerry's hopes
Fitzmaurice's men need games – not rest – if they are to make an impact
And then there were two.
Seven weeks on from the first championship whistle in New York, five weeks on from the opening bow for 10 more teams and a week on from Tyrone's third heavy-duty Ulster championship match, Cork and Kerry finally get to stretch their limbs in earnest and get their respective summer campaigns under way.
Later than usual because the seeding system slipped through Munster last year and so vexed off the other four county panels in the province, the staggered start has obvious benefits attached to certainty of planning and tailoring of training schedules.
The inevitable contrast with Tyrone's steep championship trajectory will be drawn. Already, without a bead of sweat being broken, both Munster heavyweights are further down the road towards September than Mickey Harte's side, who must beat Louth in their first qualifier to gain parity with this weekend's semi-final losers in Munster.
For sure it's inequitable but with a solution on the table from the Football Review Committee to reshape the provincial championship into four competitions of eight teams that is likely to be rebuffed at a specially convened Central Council meeting next week to discuss their latest proposals, what other alternative is there if there is no desire to break down the provincial structures altogether?
There was a time in the not too distant past when the late leap into the championship and the shortened road to the first weekend of August was an absolute priority for an ageing Kerry team. But now? Eamonn Fitzmaurice (below) can hardly think it ideal that it has been 11 weeks since their last meaningful match – a league defeat to Cork – or that they have been kicking their heels over five weekends now while the championship unfolds around them.
With so much road testing to be done in Kerry this year, the armchair ride into the last 12 may not just suit their profile this season.
"It has been difficult. It's an awkward break, as 11 weeks is a long time without a game," he said at last week's press briefing.
His selector Mikey Sheehy is also uncomfortable with the lengthy break which has been plugged with club championship games and a challenge match against Meath.
"I would have an awful issue with fixtures. There is something radically wrong. But it's just the way the cards are dealt and you have to play with them," Sheehy acknowledged.
Last year Kerry got off to their Munster campaign earlier and had two games played within six days against Tipperary and Waterford to sharpen them.
"I would love to see the National League just run into the championship, because fellas would be coming off your league into the championship and would be at a good level," said Fitzmaurice.
"But we have a system and that is what we have to adapt to. We had one game (against Meath) and we benefited from it and that is all we can fit in."
With a much less experienced team they would surely have welcomed a similar pathway ahead of them 12 months on. The bank of experience that Kerry will be without in terms of championship appearances alone from the end of one campaign to the beginning of another is incredible.
Between retirements and injuries five players with 334 championship appearances between them – Tomas O Se (88), Colm Cooper (76), Eoin Brosnan (69), Paul Galvin (55) and Kieran Donaghy (46) – have been lost to them for the start of this championship, though Donaghy (listed on the bench for Sunday) could make a return around the Munster final as he recovers from a dislocated shoulder.
Moulding a new team required more exposure from April to June than they have received.
Still, Meath came away from a challenge in Limerick just under two weeks ago most impressed with the slick movement and menace of the Kerry forwards, who ran up 3-17 with ease and might have been more comfortable winners than the scoreline suggested.
The Cork game, which ended in a 2-18 to 1-11 defeat at the back end of the league, has been put behind them for now but Fitzmaurice has acknowledged concern over what happened.
"I hope we are a good bit ahead of where we were at then now. But at the time, it was where we were at.
"It was disappointing and we played very poorly on the day. We did not show any fight and I think the most disappointing aspect of it was that we had won three games in a row.
"We had momentum on our side. We also had been on the road, had two good wins away from home, and were coming home to play in Tralee.
"It was a fine day, Cork were in town and all the ingredients were there for a big performance, but we were very flat on the day. We all had to do a lot of soul searching after that loss."
A priority of Kerry's preparations has been customising their game more to coming against defensively minded teams and Fitzmaurice expects that approach from Clare.
"We came up against it a lot in the National League, not so much this year, but we got a lot of exposure to it last year, and in the Cavan game in Croke Park we struggled with them when they played that game.
"I think that when you talk about complacency, we were slightly off it that day, it was a dog fight to the end.
"Looking at Clare, they appear to be quite defensive when they do not have the ball, but when they have the ball, they attack in numbers. We will be ready on Sunday and we will be ready to impose our game on them."
James O'Donoghue and Johnny Buckley are out of Sunday's game while Brian McGuire, James Walsh, Conor Cox and David Culhane have gone to America for the summer, weakening Kerry's extended squad somewhat which has been largely shy of U-21 players in the last 18 months.