By Daragh Ó Conchúir
YOU hear it all the time.
“We’re only taking it one game at a time.”
They mean it of course and it is a sound philosophy in terms of remaining in the present.
For Niamh Rockett, it is a matter of necessity. Such is the state of her left knee in particular that she doesn’t really know if there will be another game after this one.
Mind you, given how much she has managed to squeeze out of her career in the eight years since being told, as a 16-year-old, that she faced being in a wheelchair by the time she was 30 if she continued to play sport, you tend to think that Waterford’s own ironwoman pays scant regard to inevitability.
Her father was Eddie Rockett, long before there was an overpriced fast food chain bearing the same name. He hurled for Waterford in the ‘80s. Her brother bore the same name and played both codes for the county.
Niamh was a talent at every sport she turned her hand to, but only Camogie has survived. Pain is fairly much a constant reminder of her passion for the game and for her teammates but it is a price she considers worth paying.
Now, after three operations, she has a sort of Paul McGrath existence. If there is soreness, she confines herself to physio or a bit of bike work. She will never do a hard session after a game.
Ironically though, because she cannot afford to stop for fear of seizing up, the constant winter work in the gym has her feeling fitter than for a few years now.
You’ll spot it on the field though, that slight limp, the inability to really be able to pin the ears back and put on the afterburners. But it is that desire, the character, the leadership and an ability to always come up with a score that makes the vice-captain such a vital asset.
“In 2009 I was getting pains in my left knee. I was playing a load of different sports and I had keyhole surgery the following year and was told that I could never play again. My two knees were malaligned. They wanted to break them and realign them.
“My father and myself were crying – I was only 16 at the time, and was after playing in the All-Ireland (Premier Junior Final) the year before.
“I persevered for a couple of years using physio, chiropractors, everything to avoid doing that – and I was so young.
“In 2014 I had a collision in the League up in Meath. I got a concussion from it but my kneecap was dislocated and I was out for 14 months with that.”
Another specialist told her arthritis was so bad she needed to pack it in. As a PE teacher (as well as maths) at Blackwater Community School in Lismore, it would have an effect on her profession too.
“There were a lot of rows at home. My mother begged me to stop playing but my father was looking overseas to see if there was anything that could be done. He asked the consultant Tom McCarthy about getting a knee replacement – there is no cartilage there, it’s just bone on bone. So I had a reconstruction, which is where you take a bit of the hamstring and put it across your kneecap to act as a stabiliser because there was nothing keeping my knee in alignment.
“Thankfully I made it back when we won the All-Ireland (Intermediate Final) the following year.”
And now, she is still around, as Waterford perform in the knockout stages of the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship for the first time in their history.
“I don’t know if I’ll be playing next year or the year after. I could be up all night in tremendous pain with my knee. I’m on tablets for the arthritis but I’ve come to accept it, that’s it for me.
“I’ll just play until I can’t play anymore and I’ll be happy with that… From being told I’d be in a wheelchair by the time I was 30 at the age of 16, to being where I am now, is down to the physios, my family and all the people around me who kept believing in me and said we’d find other ways. And we did find other ways thankfully.
“Now, my whole thing is that I want to put the Waterford jersey in a better position for the girls going forward.”
That has already been achieved but beating Tipperary in this evening’s Quarter-Final at Páirc Ui Chaoimh (5.30pm) would be a further boost in a county making significant strides with its underage endeavours.
“We’re not going to do anything differently to what we’ve done in the last couple of games. We’re going to focus on the performance. We had Galway, Kilkenny, Clare and Limerick – whatever the team is, we’ll try and win.
“They might look at us and think they had the easier draw in not getting Galway – but we have to just look out ourselves and try produce our best performance.”