Big guns set to unveil their title credentials
Kerry, Mayo and Cork all expected to lay down serious championship markers this weekend
It has been a long time coming, but some very big boys are finally ready to play.
Cork, Kerry, Mayo and Armagh begin their All-Ireland journey on Sunday, leaving Sligo as the only county still awaiting its first game.
It will arrive six days later when they host Roscommon in the Connacht semi-final at Markievicz Park.
Donegal, who have already beaten Tyrone, play Armagh on Sunday, which means that the four favourites behind market leaders, Dublin face tests of varying difficulty within two hours of each other. Armagh, are joint eighth favourites with Tyrone.
Donegal and Mayo, who are away to Armagh and Galway respectively, have more reason to be wary than Kerry (away to Tipperary) and Cork (home to Clare), who are well-fancied to maintain their 'Big Two' status in Munster.
Donegal will have had a four-week gap between the Tyrone and Armagh games, an excessively long wait in any province, let alone Ulster, which is by far the most competitive. Besides, Donegal need to win four games to retain the title.
And since they invested so much time and energy into preparing for the Tyrone game, there's always the risk that they could run flat against an Armagh squad that has had June 14 etched in the their minds since last October.
Still, Donegal know that their championship tune-up was correctly calibrated, whereas Armagh, Mayo, Kerry and Cork have no such proof.
Also, Armagh and Mayo are under new management, albeit with Kieran McGeeney having spent last year as No.2 to Paul Grimley in Armagh. Nor is it brand new territory for Pat Holmes, joint Mayo manager with Noel Connelly.
Holmes managed Mayo seniors around the turn of the Millennium and later worked with Connelly when they were joint U-21 bosses.
While there are some who regard Armagh as potential All-Ireland contenders - they reached the quarter-final last year, losing by a point to Donegal - there's no doubt that everyone sees Kerry, Mayo and Cork as sides with a genuine chance of landing the big prize.
Hence, the big interest in their opening games, especially in the case of Mayo and Kerry, both of whom who appear to have tougher assignments than Cork.
Kerry: A case for the defence?
If Mayo had beaten Kerry in either of their two attempts last August - and they had more than enough chances on both days - the Kingdom would most likely be fourth or fifth favourites now, instead of being Dublin's closest pursuers.
Still, it's unusual that All-Ireland champions don't begin the defence of their title as favourites, especially when it involves Kerry.
However, the majority view is that despite last year's collapse against Donegal, Dublin is the most formidable power in the land.
That will irritate Kerry blue bloods, especially since they appear to be stronger this year. The triple return of Colm Cooper (injury), Tommy Walsh (Australia) and Paul Galvin (retirement) certainly strengths the squad from midfield up (although Galvin can do some work in his own half), but what of the defence?
Winning an All-Ireland title invariably covers up problems, purely because the opposition obviously had more difficulties.
However, that doesn't always carry on into the next season. Whether the Kerry defence improves this year remains to be seen, but it's certainly as aspect that Eamonn Fitzmaurice will have concentrated on.
Kerry had the worst defensive record in Division 1, when finishing sixth this year, even conceding more than Tyrone and Derry, who were below them in the relegation places.
An indifferent League campaign proved no barrier to Kerry last year, but on the basis that a team has to be even better to retain the title, they will need to improve the defensive arrangements quite considerably.
Mayo: Defining Frustration
Team captain, Keith Higgins has talked of the importance of winning provincial titles, not least as a means of remaining on the direct route to the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
There's a special significance for Mayo this year as they are seeking their fifth successive Connacht crown, a feat they last achieved in 1910.
However, controlling Connacht over an extended period comes nowhere close to the joy that one All-Ireland title would bring.
So basically it comes down to this: can the Holmes/Connelly partnership find the missing piece of the jigsaw that has eluded Mayo so far?
Or, alternatively, are they ready to be taken out in Connacht, as they were in 1998 after reaching the two previous All-Ireland finals?
Galway beat them on that occasion, but then times were different. Galway had a far better mix of top class, experienced players and young talent than is currently the case.
Mayo have every right to be regarded as the warmest of fancies to win Connacht again, but it won't be enough unless they can bring something different to their All-Ireland bid. That responsibility falls not only to Holmes/Connelly, but also to the squad who have been unable to see the task through to a successful conclusion. Ultimately, it's in their hands.
Cork: Right Climate?
Doing well in the Allianz League should be a big help going into the championship but then which version of Cork is for real?
Is it the progressive form that took them to the top of the Division 1 table and comfortably past Donegal in the semi-final, or the embarrassing inertia that left them such easy prey for Dublin in the final?
A similar collapse against Dublin in last year's League semi-final was the pre-cursor to an even worst performance against Kerry in the Munster final. That's a big concern for manager, Brian Cuthbert.
The manner in which Cork disengaged in those three defeats pointed to a serious personality defect in the squad. Yet, they were impressive when losing rather unluckily to Mayo in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final.
What Cork really need is to win the Munster championship (presumably by beating Kerry in the final) and arrive in Croke Park in August with all the confidence that would derive from that.
They were favourites to win Munster this time last year, but flopped in the final. Much less is expected of them now but guess what? It could create an ideal climate for them to prosper.
Certainly, there's a lot more to them than some high-profile setbacks would suggest. Question is: Can they unleash it on a consistent basis?