Fitzmaurice can pass first test of faith in old guard
Home comforts key as Kingdom boss seeks to draw more from side that struggled in last two seasons
On the opening weekend of the Allianz League last February, both Kerry and Cork lost by six points.
Kerry were dismally poor against Mayo in Castlebar, Cork less so but were still well off the pace set by Dublin at Croke Park.
A week later, both were beaten at home, Kerry being trimmed by Dublin in Killarney, Cork losing by four points to Kildare at Pairc Ui Rinn.
The search for clues on the mindset of the managers revealed that Eamonn Fitzmaurice regarded it as a case of short-term pain for long-term gain. Or so he said.
"In the short term, it's tough; in the long run, it's good for their development," said Fitzmaurice after Kerry's 10-point loss to Dublin.
It wasn't immediately apparent how losing so heavily was good for anything but, in fairness, he had to apply some positive context to the wipeout.
Meanwhile, Rebels manager Conor Counihan talked about the need "to graft a little more" after Cork's defeat by Kildare.
Kerry didn't win a game until round five but, with Division 2 beckoning, they quickly gathered momentum and won the final three games, thus securing their place in the top flight.
Cork and Kerry finished fifth and sixth respectively in Division 1, leaving Dublin, Tyrone, Mayo and Kildare to battle it out for the title and Donegal and Down heading down the relegation chute.
Staying in Division 1 seemed to be what this season's league was all about for the Munster giants. Cork won the previous three Division 1 titles but backed them up with only one All-Ireland win, a balance which didn't satisfy them.
While they would never admit that they weren't really all that interested in being at Croke Park twice in April, they gave a very definite impression that they felt a different route into the championship should be explored.
As for Kerry, their poor start to the league set their agenda but once they survived in Division 1, they were quite happy – all the more so since they signed off on the league campaign with wins over Down, Cork and Tyrone.
"A lot of fellas now know what it's like to wear a Kerry jersey. I think we have a stronger squad going into the championship," said Fitzmaurice after the win over Tyrone in Omagh.
He gave the impression of being pleased with the talent which had pushed its way through but three months later, Kerry's only Munster final debutant is full-back Mark Griffin.
Even then, it's an enforced change as Griffin is replacing the injured Aidan O'Mahony. It suggests that, for all the trawling, nobody was good enough to displace the old guard.
And since Kerry's last All-Ireland win was in 2009, it raises the question of how they can return to the summit with essentially the same squad which came up short in recent years.
Logically, the only way that can happen is if other leading contenders drop back or else Fitzmaurice devises a strategy which draws something extra from his squad.
The first real test case as to how successful that pursuit has been will emerge tomorrow against Cork, who themselves need to be more creative than they have been over the past two seasons.
As with Kerry, there is little point returning to Croke Park with the same players and the same tactics, since it didn't work against Mayo in 2011 or Donegal last year.
Counihan has been freshening up the squad and, potentially, will have six Munster final debutants in action tomorrow.
However, given Cork's practice of announcing dummy teams, it's best not to pay too much attention to the published selection since it doesn't feature Aidan Walsh, Donncha O'Connor or Ciaran Sheehan.
Kerry's need to reinvent tactically, combined with Cork's attempt to inject some new talent into their system, makes tomorrow's game very interesting, not just as a Munster final but as an indicator as to what can be expected from both later on.
There's quite a good chance that tomorrow's losers will join the winners in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, so 'Brand Munster' is very much on trial in terms of making a statement on the longer-term prospects in the big Croke Park action.
As for the game itself, neither side learned anything from the ridiculously easy wins over their weaker Munster rivals in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. So if Fitzgerald and Counihan planned to road test any particular tactical model, it didn't work.
It's all square on that front but Kerry have an advantage on the basis of venue. Both sides usually claim that they are as comfortable entering the opposition's den as playing at home but the evidence doesn't support that, certainly not in recent times.
Cork's last win over Kerry at Fitzgerald Stadium was in 1995 on a day when Colin Corkery scored 0-7 in the 0-15 to 1-9 Munster final win. Since then, they have met nine times in the championship in Killarney with Kerry winning five, while there have been four draws.
Of course, the longer any sequence goes on the more vulnerable it becomes but remaining unbeaten in nine games in Killarney is still a heartening thought for Kerry to take into tomorrow's final.
Home comforts could well be enough to swing the tight margin their way.
Odds: Kerry 8/11; Cork 6/4; Draw 7/1
Cork – K O'Halloran; E Cadogan, M Shields, D Cahalane; J Loughrey, P Kissane, T Clancy; G Canty, P O'Neill; F Goold, P Kelly, J O'Rourke; D Goulding, B Hurley, P Kerrigan.
Kerry – B Kealy; M O Se, M Griffin, S Enright; T O Se, K Young, P Crowley; A Maher, J Buckley; P Galvin, C Cooper, D Walsh; Darran O Sullivan, Declan O'Sullivan, J O'Donoghue.
Ref – Martin Duffy (Sligo)