By Daragh Ó Conchúir
Niamh Mallon considers herself fortunate that her day job has a direct connection with her favourite pastime.
The 23-year-old Down star has been a key contributor once more in the return of the red and black to Croke Park for the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Intermediate Camogie Championship Final against Cork on Sunday.
Mallon scored nine points in the two-point Semi-Final victory over Tipperary having established herself as a real team leader, with eight years’ experience already having joined the panel as a 15-year-old in 2010.
She endured the heartbreak of losing All-Ireland Premier Junior deciders in 2011 and 2012 before finally getting her hands on the Kay Mills Cup four years ago after Down scored the last seven points to beat Laois by four.
Team preparation has changed completely since then, even in those four years. Progress has been made throughout the grades but having a degree in sports science and started working in Galway for data science company Orreco in July, Mallon knows more than anyone how far there is to go.
Orreco is a global operation specialising in identifying injury predictors, optimal training loads and recovery strategies with NBA and NHL teams in America, European soccer teams, as well as PGA Tour golfers and Formula One motor racing drivers among many others
Mallon herself is working on a ground-breaking app that will reduce injury and illness in female athletes and has proven understandably popular since its launch last year.
“The FitrWoman app is free to download and it incorporates evidence-based sports science research to provide training and nutrition advice tailored to your menstrual cycle,” explains Mallon.
“The WGPA have done an awful lot to bring sport science and analytics into Camogie the last couple of years through the grant. In Down we’re not overly exposed to it at the minute because of budget constraints but I’d say it won’t be far down the line before it does.
“Sports science and data analytics are massive for recovery. That’s the common topic for every sport but particularly for Camogie players because they’re expected to train with the club, play with the club as well as do the same with the county. Rest and recovery is not really an option at times so I think recovery is massive.
“You’re looking at the GPS systems, performance analysis – the top teams are all using those sorts of things and that’s something we’ll need over the next few years. At the higher levels, the more exposure you have of playing big games, the more that’s going to come as well.”
They don’t come much bigger than an All-Ireland Final in Croke Park and yet after losing the first five games in the League and rookie selector Martina Rooney taking over as manager for the relegation play-off with Kildare, fortunes have improved remarkably.
“We’d a rocky enough League campaign with players missing through different things. As players started to come in, we got a solid panel together. We beat Kildare in a relegation play-off and the momentum started to roll from there.
"We went to the Ulster Championship and managed to win it for the first time in 13 years.
“In the All-Ireland group stages, the momentum brought us through to the Cork game but we got a reality check, back down to earth. But we refocused and were lucky I suppose but we’ve earned our place in Croke Park.”
Fortunately, Laois defeated Derry the same weekend as Cork ended Down’s winning run. The Mournewomen capitalised on the second chance by accounting for Laois to book a place in the last four.
Certainly, annexing an Ulster title after such a lengthy gap was a significant boost, particularly with so many players from the 2016 All-Ireland Minor B-winning panel having come through. It has always meant a lot in a region that is an outlier in terms of being a hurling and Camogie stronghold.
“My club Portaferry is on the Ards Peninsula, where you’ve only the three clubs – Portaferry, Ballycran and Ballygalget and it’s hurling only, no football. Everywhere else in the county it’s football. On the peninsula it’s hurling mad. As if it was Kilkenny or Cork – pure hurling.
“It was a Tipperary man who came up and set up the club and Portaferry wear blue and gold because of it.”
Ned Purcell, an agricultural inspector, is the man credited with laying the real foundations of the St. Patrick’s club between 1912 and 1917 and it has been the small ball for the past 100 years.
Familiar opposition marks Down’s path to a first All-Ireland Intermediate Championship since 1998.
“Cork are the benchmark, both at Senior and Intermediate in the past number of years. They’ve been beaten in the past two Intermediate Finals so they know what it takes to get to Croke Park.
“In Newry, we were on Cloud Nine, our heads were in the clouds ever so slightly, we hadn’t lost a game since the League and I think it was a reality check, it brought us back down to earth. We didn’t play to our potential, we were missing a few girls. There’s definitely more in us and we hope to bring that Sunday.”