The answers to the Q&A staple of who one would invite to dinner or like to play a round of golf with are often informative.
By Daragh Ó Conchúir
A few years ago, Niamh Rockett, captain of the Waterford team that plays Wexford in the Very Camogie League Division 1B final at FBD Semple Stadium tomorrow (12pm throw-in, livestream on the Camogie Association’s YouTube channel) reported that her gathering would comprise Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin, comedian, podcaster and broadcaster Doireann Garrihy, pioneering world champion boxer Katie Taylor and jump jockey Donagh Meyler.
That list speaks to the 29-year-old’s love of showbiz, glitz and glamour, as well as a penchant for a one-liner and hearty guffaw at any given opportunity. It is indicative too of a real fascination with high performance sport, the psychology of it and different challenges surrounding it.
Horse racing has been an interest for many years, thanks largely to her father, the former Waterford hurler Eddie Rockett but she knows a lot more about what jockeys must endure since starting to go out with Meyler. It’s not every sport or job that you are followed around by two ambulances while going about your work.
“I used to go to racing a lot but it’s interesting how different jockeys are to us,” says Rockett. “It’s their whole life and they sort of have to cater for everything themselves. With us, we have different careers and are part of a group with that back-up when playing. For jockeys it’s very up and down and I see the bad side as well as the good side. Having to constantly watch their weight, the falls, the injuries and getting dropped off horses because of one bad ride. Even the best lose more than they win. It’s constant pressure but thankfully things are going pretty well for Donagh at the moment.”
She knows all about overcoming odds, having been diagnosed with arthritis in her knee and told she could be in a wheelchair by 30 while only 16, and displaced a kneecap at 20. There have been countless surgeries. Yet here she is, closing in on that macabre deadline and still indulging in her greatest passion.
It is 12 years since she helped Waterford win the All-Ireland premier junior title and they have continued to progress in the meantime, garnering intermediate honours in 2015. Last year, they led Cork entering the final quarter of the senior semi-final. Of course, those last yards to the summit are always the hardest but Rockett isn’t the type of person to be cowed.
The split season has been a godsend, with a longer break before returning to inter-county training. With the split-season meaning she had more time to rest and then get her prehab work done earlier than hitherto, Rockett even managed some pre-season training this year, much to the mirth of the player herself, not to mention her teammates.
“I’m always taking the mick, that I’ve three months done with the team and it’s still cold, I’m still wearing leggings. Usually when I’ve three months done, I’m well in the shorts.
“Some days are worse than others, if I’ve done too much or with the ground changing but touch wood, I haven’t had any major setbacks apart from one freak bang. I’ve only got one of them this year and it did swell up really badly but I know what to do when that happens. I’d be stubborn enough and my leg would need to be hanging off not to go training.”
That’s the type of mindset that prevails in a jockeys’ weigh room too and one can imagine Rockett and Meyler reprising the scene between Mel Gibson and Rene Russo in Lethal Weapon 3, where the pair compared war wounds.
Certainly, the former All-Star attacker has been in fine form this year, linking well with long-time ally Beth Carton to pounce for two goals in her most recent outing against Down, which Waterford won despite new manager, Seán Power being able to make a number of changes with the final berth already secured.
It has already been a memorable year for the St Anne’s star, as the PE and maths teacher at her own alma mater, St Declan’s Community College in Kilmacthomas, was manager the senior camogie team that triumphed in the All-Ireland D post-primary schools’ final last February. Remarkably, Rockett was skipper when Declan’s won it previously in 2011.
While sharing a staff room with some of her former teachers took a little getting used to, she is an established part of the fabric now.
“Coaching wouldn’t have been something I was thinking about in the short term but I play with a couple of the girls and there’s a great group of girls there, from as young as second year up to sixth year. All the teachers and the whole school community got involved and got behind the team and there’s memories there the girls will have forever.
“The first All-Ireland I won was with the school under (then Waterford footballer) Shane Briggs. I’ve been lucky enough that for the two All-Irelands won by the school, I was captain for one and manager of the other. They’re memories you’ll always have and we still talk about the first one in the staff room, and how bad my speeches used to be. I’m after getting a bit better at that at least!”
Giving back is a considerable factor in the rise of camogie at all levels in Waterford and during the week, with the schools off for mid-term, the county board has run a series of three-day camps. The senior players have been putting their shoulders to the wheel and Rockett was helping out at the Mount Sion and De La Salle sessions.
Elite sport is about performing at the highest level though. Rockett and Waterford have big ambitions, buoyed by how hard they pushed Cork, even though the likes of speedster Abby Flynn was literally hamstrung that day. So playing in Division 1A next year is imperative but Wexford stand in their way.
“You’re trying to improve every year but this year has been very, very enjoyable. We’re allowed express ourselves. There’s great competition in the group and there’ve been a lot of positional changes. This year, 32 different players got starts through the course of the League which is great.
“It was great to get the wins but the scorelines were flattering on us. Wexford are going to be a completely different ball game to when we last played them (winning by 12 points). They won it last year but missed out on going up with the change in format. We’re expecting a big challenge.
“It was great to get to where we got to last year and great to get over the hump of beating Tipperary in the round-robin after they had beaten us so many times, and then winning a quarter-final. Being ahead so late in an All-Ireland semi-final was brilliant but we didn’t get over the line and there’s loads to improve on.
“Everyone was so eager to come back and we’ve a new managerial set-up that brings a bit of freshness to it. They also have a huge back-up. We are very thankful to Derek (Lyons) and last year’s management for getting us where we got. I think it was a big strain on them, they had to do most of the work themselves, there was only three or four of them, whereas this year there might be around 20 in the backroom team, nobody’s overworked, everything can be delegated.
“For now, we want to be back in Division 1A. It’s the physicality is the big difference I find between the divisions, and the sharpness, and we’ll need that if we’re going to win an All-Ireland. So we’ll be going all out to try and win.”