Ian McKinley: 'I'd give anything to go back - but not my right eye'
IT WAS the most innocuous ending to a most promising career. Leaving a Galway restaurant, the vision in Ian McKinley's left eye deserted him permanently. It wasn't confirmed until the following weekend in the Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin, but McKinley's career as a Leinster rugby player was over. He was just 21.
The beginning of the end came in January of last year. UCD travelled to Lansdowne for an AIL match and in the opening minutes McKinley tried to wrestle possession from an opponent. At the same time, and as he was falling to the ground, a team-mate came over the top and caught his eye with a trailing foot. McKinley hopped up and, believing he had been the victim of a deliberate boot to the head, sought retribution.
There was no pain but a doctor soon grabbed him and the urgency in his voice made McKinley take notice.
He would later be told that it looked like some loosely applied piece of cling-film was all that was stopping his eye from falling out of his head. An 8mm gash meant part of the eye had to be cleared out in an operation and a series of events that would eventually end his career was set in motion. "The only research that has been done is on animals, nothing on humans," McKinley states. "There are only cornea transplants and it's my retina that detached; that's as far as medical science goes."
Career-ending injuries are about as tragic as sport can get, but there was a sting in the tail for McKinley. He returned to Leinster and regained as much as 70pc of his vision in the damaged eye, something his surgeon described as a miracle. However, it was a matter of when and not if the cataract would develop and, in his own words, he was "on borrowed time".
A start at home to Treviso in the RDS fulfilled a lifetime's ambition. McKinley played like a man who knew he was on the clock, scoring one try and creating another, which prompted the 'Belfast Telegraph' headline: 'Leinster find a star in McKinley'.
"It's hard to describe but I knew I had to play as well as I could in the time I had. It was very difficult for Joe (Schmidt) to pick an out-half who was half-blind. It takes a man with great balls to do that for the few matches he did and trust me. Because you still like to think you can do it, ya know?"
That performance against Treviso was the culmination of three successive weeks in the Leinster match-day squad and, along with captaining Ireland against Samoa in the U-20 World Cup, it would turn out to be the highlight of his career.
The final straw came the day after the Heineken Cup final in May when he played a development match and had to come off after 15 minutes with blurred vision in what was his final act for Leinster.
That summer the retina detached and despite three operations, each more complicated and painful than the last, his sight couldn't be restored.
He tried everything to get back playing and even considered switching position, but that wasn't a runner. The dream was dead.
"I weighed the pros and cons up with my dad. The pros were fame, for want of a better word, and playing the sport you love. I didn't care about the money. The cons were, well, your whole life.
"If I did go back would I be good as what I wanted to be? Not a chance, and therefore I'd get frustrated. Is there a chance that the good eye could get hurt? It's one in a billion but I'm not willing to take that chance. There were loads of little things that might never have happened, but they add up and your perspective changes. I'd give anything to go back -- but not my right eye."
Dropping down a level wasn't an option either; he believes his damaged eye had been deliberately targeted on his return to rugby.
"That happened a couple of times when I came back.
"So that's another factor. If I went punching another guy in the head I'd get suspended. That's all I'm willing to say about that.
"That's another factor, if I play amateur rugby and guys know, they might go for it. That happened a couple of times unfortunately. I'm just hoping it doesn't happen again.
"You can't (keep the injury under wraps). That's why in some ways playing professional rugby would be safer because there is so much technology and citing commissioners and TV and you have people that are really clued in."
Maybe that's part of the reason he barely keeps track of rugby scores anymore and has been to just two Leinster matches since he left Riverview. He's confident however, the love will return.
"I see results and highlights and it actually means nothing to me anymore. It'll come back though. If I knew I wasn't going to be involved then I'll watch it, but if there was a good chance of me playing then it's harder. So I'll look at little bits of the Heineken Cup but I don't watch the Rabo. It will come back though, of course it will."
Seeking refuge in the bottom of a bottle wasn't an option as being dehydrated aggravates his eye. But it's the well-wishers on a night out that sometimes bring it all home.
"A week after I was told I was blind I went out and I drowned my sorrows a bit but that was it. I still go out, but I get very emotional if I do drink -- as anyone would -- so I keep it to a minimum. People see me when they are drunk and are hugging me as if I'm greatest guy in the world and they are so sad.
"That's hard and then you're drunk on top of it and you're just thinking, 'please stop this'. You want to get out of there. Not through any fault of their own, but it's just..."
The sentence trails off and it's the first time he has been anything other than overwhelmingly positive in our interview.
When he's asked about what he missed out on and what he will miss out on as Leinster continue to go from strength to strength, he talks about what he achieved and cherishes each of his six appearances for Leinster.
But the goalposts have moved. Now he appreciates something as simple as being able to drive.
"It has been the hardest thing I've done and more than likely it will be one of the hardest things I'll have to do in life. Of course there are days when I snap. But it makes people, how they react to things like this.
"That's why I was so relieved to have that one year of playing with Joe (Schmidt) behind me at least. If I didn't do that I would have gone crazy completely. The one thing I wanted to do was start in the RDS and I did that (against Treviso). I remember tackling Xavier Rush when he was coming at me at 100mph against Cardiff.
"We were under the cosh and we gave a good defensive display, it was real backs to the wall stuff; those things I'll forever cherish.
"I got to travel to the most amazing stadiums. I walked a lap of the pitch before the Heineken Cup final. I was on the pitch in Murrayfield and landed a kick there (in the warm-up).
"But I never got to play with (Brian) O'Driscoll; that was my one thing. I was in the squad but it never happened. That would be the one thing I didn't get to do."
People have been kind to him. He gushes about the treatment he received in the Eye and Ear Hospital while St Columba's, Leinster and St Mary's have all thrown their doors open. His parents and friends rallied round and threw a surprise birthday party after the recent Pro12 game against Cardiff, which the Leinster squad attended en-masse.
All the while, he's plotting a re-entry to competitive sport. He has taken inspiration from World Cup-winning Italian midfielder Genarro Gattuso, who also lost sight in his left eye after remarkably similar accident that saw him collide with team-mate Alessandro Nesta.
Hockey is an option, but a return to Gaelic football and Kilmacud Crokes, where he won a Feile in a team that included Dublin's All-Ireland-winning full-back Rory O'Carroll, is most likely.
He has figured that playing on the left side of defence, with the touchline closest to his damaged eye would suit best. He's already completed the Great Wicklow Run and will probably maintain an interest in triathlons.
Next year he'll pursue a career in coaching when he goes for his badges. He shunned the chance of a year travelling: "I wanted to get on with the next phase of my life."
So there is life after rugby?
"There was life during it."