Niamh Marley has given new Armagh manager Ronan Murphy a pre-Christmas boost by turning down exciting new challenges in rugby to focus all her efforts on Armagh gaelic ahead of the coming season.
The Lissummon powerhouse briefly dabbled with the oval ball code a couple of years ago before needing major knee surgery, and giving rugby another try has seemed to be on her agenda since returning to fitness.
However various factors have convinced her to kick rugby to touch at least for now in spite of fresh overtures and concentrate exclusively on Armagh’s attempt to win NFL Division Two and then target Ulster Senior Championship success.
Back at the start of August 2017, just before Ireland hosted the women’s World Cup, Marley signed up to attend a talent identification screening day in Portadown organised by Ulster Rugby to include those with little or no previous experience.
Niamh enjoyed the day and did well to the extent that she was actually invited onto Ulster’s extended training squad and took part in a number of sessions, but circumstances meant a successful conversion at the time just wasn’t to be.
It transpired that the knee problem Marley had been struggling with since the spring was actually a torn cruciate and, after going under the knife in early November, she was out of action until the start of this year.
“Various people, especially a certain Gazette journalist, had kept telling me that rugby would suit my physicality and that I’d enjoy it, so when I found out Ulster were holding a talent ID day virtually on my doorstep at Chambers Park, I put my name down,” she recalls.
“It was a mix of trials for club players and a sort of crash course for people like me with no rugby background before but I was impressed with the professional organisation and enjoyed the experience.
“I know women’s rugby in Ulster is a bit behind the other provinces but I was still shocked to be asked to train with their extended squad as the build-up began to the interpros which were in December.
“You hardly know what to expect with a sport you haven’t tried before but, because I was so new, I think the technical nature of rugby made more impression on me than the physicality.
“Of course rugby by its nature is hard-hitting but there are also a lot of technical components and a need for precision to maximise impact while staying on the right side of the laws as there are so many potential penalty offences.
“It was intense stuff but I felt that I was learning quite quickly and really enjoying it. Unfortunately though I was still trying to get to the bottom of the knee problem which had been hampering me since April.
“That was frustrating so in some ways it was progress when the torn cruciate was confirmed, even though it’s news any sportsperson dreads as it’s a serious injury requiring surgery and you’re likely to be out for a year which is a long time.
“I knew right away that was going to wipe out most or all of the 2018 gaelic season and it also meant my rugby had to be put on hold, just when I’d got a taste for it but before there was a chance to join a club or even play my first ever match.”
After treading the long and lonely rehab road, Marley made her return to action in Armagh’s opening National League at the start of February and put herself about in typically robust style.
However she inexplicably lost her starting spot in the team for June’s Ulster semi-final against Monaghan, was an unused sub that Sunday night in the Athletic Grounds, and was left on the bench for the final too.
By the time Marley was sent on in Clones the showpiece was effectively finished as a contest, which was hugely frustrating, but she emphatically proved a point in taking the game to Donegal in forthright fashion.
“I still can’t quite understand what happened last season but it was soul-destroying at the time because I was working hard, delighted to be back playing after the big injury and everyone knows how much I love playing for Armagh.
“Not everyone in a squad starts every game obviously but I’d been a regular until then and felt that I was worth my place. So being left out felt a bit personal and I might have walked away if I had continued not getting a fair crack.
“Of course there are bigger things going on in the world than football but Armagh means everything to me and I was left feeling frustrated, sad, cross and a bit bewildered to be honest.
“Thankfully I got back in eventually and starting a championship match with all three of my sisters for the first time ever the day we beat Cork was special. Even if I was wearing a No 17 jersey,” she says, self-deprecatingly but with a degree of feeling.
Armagh were narrowly beaten by Mayo in the All Ireland quarter-final a fortnight later with Marley strangely taken off towards the end but Lorraine McCaffrey and Fionnuala McAtamney stood down as joint managers that evening.
You suspect that the hurt, even humiliation, Marley felt from falling out of favour last season has left some scars which will help push her on to fresh heights in the year ahead as one of Armagh’s top players.
“Especially with Armagh under new management, I’ve been able draw a line under last year and mentally move on so my motivation for 2020 won’t just be righting wrongs or retrospectively proving a point.
“It’s a fresh start for all of us and, like everyone else, I want to fight for a place in the team, do everything I can to be the best I can be and help Armagh have a successful season under Ronan and Tommy (Stevenson).
“I suppose since the big injury I’m making up for lost time and acutely aware you can’t take the future for granted so I want to make the most of opportunities and aim to enjoy my football,” she says.
An interesting diversion last summer was taking up an invitation from her Orchard county colleague Kelly Mallon to join Madden camogie club and try her hand at an alternative second sport.
Recruiting the combative Marley was one element of ambitious Madden captain Mallon’s quest to broaden the club’s base but the experiment understandably struggled for enough oxygen to catch fire.
The rookie was given a brief cameo in the last period of a challenge game against Liatroim on the early June evening Madden’s biggest name, Leah McGoldrick, made her comeback after 12 months out with a dislocated knee.
However she didn’t get permission from Armagh to tog out for the Senior Championship quarter-final against Granemore and was an unused sub for the subsequent semi-final victory over Crossmaglen and decider defeat to Ballymacnab.
Because Niamh had been kept under wraps as a possible secret weapon, her camogie career chapter passed the public by, although match commentator Damian McCullough did gave her a mention on air during the final!
Pursuing rugby as a second sport always seemed a better bet than camogie and becoming Ulster player McGoldrick’s clubmate at Madden gave Marley a direct local connection with the oval ball game.
When McGoldrick joined Dungannon ahead of this season she tried to persuade Niamh to come with her and give rugby another try but unfortunately the invitation was turned down, with pragmatism triumphing over a sense of curiosity.
“I really enjoyed the rugby before and in an ideal world would love to go back but the gaelic comes first at this stage and it has to take proper priority right now. Probably being out for that year and then the frustrations of last season have focused my mind.
“Maybe rugby just wasn’t to be but you can never say never. I don’t regret going along that first time and think that I was progression quite quickly before the injury issue put everything on the long finger.
“Who knows whether I would have made it (to Ulster level) if things had been different but it was disappointing not to have been involved long enough to play a rugby match of any sort so that itch hasn’t been scratched.
“So when Leah asked me along to Dungannon, it was sorely tempting, but my heart is set on giving the gaelic my best shot this season and put everything into doing what I can to be an effective force for Armagh in what we hope will be a big year for us.”
Niamh has got to know McGoldrick from her dalliance with camogie and the other local Ulster player, Vicky Irwin of Cooke, comes from Hamiltonsbawn like herself so she doesn’t have to look far from home for rugby role models.
As for fears that Marley, who turns 28 in April, may have missed the rugby boat, she can take inspiration from the example of big sister Caoimhe’s old sparring partner Lindsay Peat, the former Dublin footballer.
Ex-basketball international Peat only took up rugby aged 34 but played for Ireland in the 2017 World Cup and the loosehead prop is hoping to have recovered from a neck injury in time for the forthcoming Six Nations.
Marley hadn’t been assigned a specific position during her time training with the Ulster squad but it would be easy to imagine her as a ferocious flanker or barnstorming inside centre if a code conversion ever materialises.
For now though, her decision to kick rugby to touch for the foreseeable future is a real Christmas bonus for Armagh, manager Murphy and Orchard ladies football fans.