“Growing up as a kid I would have thought about playing for Ireland when I was kicking a ball about in the garden. But Italy has given me a second opportunity, not only as a rugby player but also in life.”
In all the debates over international eligibility it’s hard not to root for Ian McKinley who has overcome all the odds and is now on the brink of getting a chance in the Test arena with the Azzurri after being named in a provisional 44-man squad for Italy’s summer Tour.
Six years on from retiring from rugby because of an injury that left him blind in his left eye, the Benetton Treviso fly-half is set to complete the most unlikely of comebacks.
He hung up his boots in 2011 at the age of 21, 18 months after a freak accident had initially damaged the sight in his left eye, before he lost it altogether.
In August 2012 he left his native Ireland, moved to Udine in Italy and started coaching. McKinley freely admits it was during that time that the reality of what he had suffered hit hardest.
That’s when his brother Philip knew he had to step in.
I would like to thank everyone who wrote to me over the past 24 hours.I am overwhelmed by the reaction and thank you for the support🇮🇹
— Ian McKinley (@ianmck7) May 3, 2017
McKinley explains: “I have lived in Italy for five years, it’s coming up to six.
“I had no aspirations of playing when I came over. When the goggles started generating momentum was back towards the middle of 2013 when I was not going through a good period mentally.
“I was really struggling, when you see your friends playing all the time, enjoying success, it was hard.
“My brother Philip was over with me at that time and when he came back he felt he was going to have to try to do something, if there was anything that could be done to help my career reignite, not even to reach high levels, but to reignite, to get some joy, he would do that.
“So he basically worked with the National College of Art and Design in Ireland. There was a student there who luckily got wind of our project and proposal and took on a design of goggles.
“The IRB at the time, were also making a pair of goggles, they were in the process. Both sides merged and it accelerated the process and it came to fruition.”
FROM DUBLIN TO UDINE
In March 2014 McKinley made his playing return in Serie C, a far cry from the 19-year-old who made his debut for Leinster a week before they won their first European title in 2009.
Having come through the ranks with the likes of Jack McGrath, Ian Madigan and Jordi Murphy, there will always be thoughts of what might have been for McKinley.
Even now time is measured in Leinster successes – his debut a week before that maiden European title, retirement came as they produced the greatest of all comebacks against Northampton two years later.
But McKinley has not let that hold him back. This season he is the only player in the Treviso squad to have featured in every game of the Guinness PRO12 season – a source of pride but also a ringing endorsement for the goggles which have allowed him to reignite his career.
“I’m the only player on the team who has been involved on every matchday this year,” he said.
“The thing I’m most happy about that is the goggles have stood up. If you can go through nearly 1500 minutes of rugby and the goggles are still good to go, that’s a real positive thing and it’s what I’ve been really happy about.
“I bring four with me every time to the game in case something goes wrong. I’m a bit like that with preparation, I like to be ultra-safe to make sure.
“When I played my first game back, the thing I was really hoping for was that the goggles would be a success.
“The worry was that they would hurt the person that was wearing them and other people. I was happy that none of that happened and it was successful.
“I had to learn how to use the product as well. It’s a weird sensation. I never even wore a scrum cap, I don’t like scrum caps, so to wear one to wear the goggles was a new thing.”
THE IMPACT OF RUGBY LEAGUE
McKinley isn’t alone when it comes to players coping with eye injuries at the highest level – former Great Britain rugby league international prop Barrie McDermott was a legend in his sport despite having sight in just one eye.
The support of McDermott and Frenchman Florian Cazenave, a scrum-half who won the French title with Perpignan, and suffered a similar injury, has played its part.
McKinley said: “Barrie McDermott put out a book and I read it. He was blind in one of his eyes and managed to play international rugby for Great Britain at Test level.
“Granted he was a prop and rugby league and rugby union are two different sports, and I’m a No.10 and they are almost two different worlds but he gave me a huge amount of advice, hearing a different perspective.
“It’s very individual in how you adapt to it. For example if I do something it might not suit Cazenave, if he does something it might not suit me.
“But it’s about trial and error and the more you can find a routine or a rhythm with what you do, that’s a positive thing. Speaking to a couple of people like that has helped.”
Next up for McKinley is an Italian derby against Zebre. It was for the Parma side that he had made his return to the Guinness PRO12 – getting there after Viadana had initially taken a chance on “a half-blind goggle-wearing No.10” as McKinley puts it.
After the derby and game 26 of his league season, McKinley will hope to be part of the 31-man final squad for the tour to Singapore, Australia and Fiji. It would be hard to begrudge the 27-year-old that opportunity.
“Italy has given me a second wind and I owe a huge amount to it as a country and all the relevant clubs who have shown faith in me when maybe others haven’t,” he adds.
“So it’s up to me to make myself available to them and the best way I can do that is to ensure my performances are at the highest level they can be.
“If it’s good enough for international rugby, it’s good enough, if not I will keep working until maybe something happens. I’m thrilled with the call-up and very honoured and you never know what might happen.”
The Guinness PRO12 Final takes place on May 27 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Fans can guarantee their place by booking their tickets via www.ticketmaster.ie