Rockett still relishing every fresh opportunity with Waterford

Déise All Star has battled arthritis throughout her long and distinguished career

Eddie Rockett’s life has probably been challenging enough, what with all those folk thinking they’re the very first to say “burger and chips please, bud”, but now he’s having to cope with his children reckoning his sporting skills pale next to those of his baby sister.

"He represented his county, he was very successful, but they can't remember him playing, they just see me," says Niamh Rockett.

“So, he’d be out in the garden with them pucking around and one of them who’s five – a pure mad yoke – would be saying, “you’re not a proper hurler – Niamh is a proper hurler”. I put in a little dig about it any time I can.”

They know she's a proper hurler because they go to most of Niamh's games, although considering she's now 29 and has been on the senior Waterford camogie panel since she was 15, winning junior and intermediate All-Irelands along the way, they probably think she's a Waterford newbie.

One of her greatest pleasures is bringing them to games at Walsh Park, Waterford's HQ, a reminder of her own youth and the thrill of those family trips on Sundays.

"I remember being brought to games in Thurles when I was really, really young. Going up in the car with my Dad [also Eddie, and also a former Waterford hurler and footballer], my Mam and my sister, having Sharon Shannon on. Massive games, the first round of the championship, you'd be absolutely buzzin'."

Nothing, she says, beats being there. She was in the crowd last month for the All-Ireland hurling club semi-final in Thurles between Ballyhale and St Thomas, when TJ Reid did his magical thing with that late, late winning goal.

“I was standing behind TJ thinking, ‘this is going in’, your heart is breaking for St Thomas’s, but for a second, ah, being there . . .. it was just chills up your spine. And we probably took being there for granted. We couldn’t get tickets to see my sister play a few weeks ago because the attendance was capped at 200 and it was sold out. You felt you might never get to see them in a Leinster semi-final again, they were the things you were missing out on.”

Even now that restrictions are lifted, she won't be at her sister's game this Saturday either, but that's only because Aoife will be running out with the footballers of St Judes in the All-Ireland Junior Club final in Baltinglass half an hour before Niamh takes to the pitch in Mullingar for Waterford's opening Littlewoods Ireland Camogie League game against Westmeath.

"The family will be flat out trying to get to everything," she laughs, "but it's brilliant to have normality back. I think sport brings so much joy to people, just going to games, talking about them, all that. When Covid hit I was pacing up and down the hall, my mother was saying 'what's wrong with you?', I just didn't know what to do with myself. The other sister would be the opposite, she'd stay in the bed for the day and watch Netflix, Covid was grand for her. We're opposite ends of the spectrum."

She passed the bulk of her lockdown watching any sport she could find on TV – “motocross, the darts, anything!” – but no feeling topped getting back training with her team-mates, and then returning to competitive action.

Wearying battle

There’s a hint of a sigh, though, when she’s asked why still playing at 29 means as much as it does to her. When she’s asked, ‘how are the knees?’ Not that she’s shied away from talking about her battle with arthritis since she was first diagnosed with the affliction when she was 16, she’s done so powerfully on several occasions before.

But you get the sense that it's been such a wearying battle, physically and emotionally, one that left her reaching out to the Gaelic Players Association for help with the bouts of depression she suffered through it all, that she'd prefer to talk about anything else.

Still, she obliges. With a chuckle. She has endured so much pain through the years, her boyfriend calls her “numb”.

“I got a hurley to my nose in training earlier in the year, broke it, the only time I started crying was when I didn’t know how I’d get the blood out of the bedsheets,” she says.

“It wasn’t the pain of it, it wasn’t getting it put back in, that was just the numbness in me. I have that mentality. I’m not going to give in. He says I’m just immune to pain now. That’s good and bad, I suppose, you don’t know when to stop with your body.”

At 16 she was told if she didn’t give up sport completely she’d end up in a wheelchair. The prognosis, for a teenager whose entire world centred around sport, was devastating, not least when she was told her knees would need to be broken and realigned. Surgery, rehab, surgery, rehab, on and on.

She recalls living on College Road in Cork, when she was in UCC doing PE and Maths, which she now teaches.

“I’d have to leave for my class 40 minutes before it started so I could get down the road hobbling on my crutches.”

But she refused to give in, camogie meant too much to her, and since her diagnosis she has managed her arthritis the best she can. The frozen pitches of winter always spell danger, to the point where her coaches insist she skip training and send her off to the gym. She hates missing those sessions, but if it prolongs her career, she’ll do it.

Winning an All Star in 2020 felt like the ultimate reward for all she'd been through. The other 14 to be saluted that year were from camogie royalty, six from Kilkenny, three from Cork and Tipperary, two from Galway. Rockett's name stood out, a player from a county relegated from Division One in the league last year, but a talent so great she earned her seat on the top table.

Individual accolade

“I got that individual accolade but if I could have done anything it would have been to put my friends and family’s name on it, my Dad, my Mam, my brother, my little nephews, my niece, my sister, my sister-in-law, because they helped me so much throughout my career. I could have retired when I was 21, not played again, they kept me going.”

“It’s funny, I have kids coming up to me, they might have seen me on the Littlewoods ad, or in the paper, I’d nearly be half embarrassed being recognised. One of the girls sent me a picture, she works in a local primary school, they were after dressing up as Niamh Rockett for World Book Day. It’s a crazy thing, but it’s just from the profile of camogie being raised, they go and see our matches, they see us on TV, they see us being streamed, on different platforms – can’t see, can’t be.”

“I love playing camogie and there are only so many years when you can be at the top of your game. I saw that with my family, with my father and my brother. I just try to leave no stone unturned, that’s the mentality I have. In sport, you only have so much time. And when my career is over, I want to look back with no regrets. That I did everything I could.”

A proper hurler.

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