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'A champion bloke' - Joe Schmidt chuffed for Ian McKinley as he makes Italy debut

Italy's Ian McKinley
Italy's Ian McKinley
Three South Africans challenge Andrew Conway for a high ball. Photo: Reuters
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Had life taken a different turn, Joe Schmidt might have handed Ian McKinley his Test debut for Ireland, but instead the Dubliner became an Italy international on Saturday - six years after he officially retired from rugby.

The out-half's tale is well-told, but remains remarkable.

When he lost the sight in one eye while playing for UCD in 2010, his promising career looked over, but with the help of protective goggles the 27-year-old has played his way through the levels in Italy and guided Conor O'Shea's team home against Fiji as a sub.

Michael Cheika handed McKinley his Leinster debut, but he also played under Schmidt and looked a future star when he won the Man of the Match award when steering the Blues to victory over Treviso in 2010.

Now he plays his rugby for the Italian side and is a fully-fledged international, having qualified to play for his adopted nation through residency.

"Fantastic, what a great kid. Natural left-footer, fantastic defender; courageous, but technically smart as well. Can control the game really well," Schmidt said.

"I suppose in a week that's been difficult for a guy (Bundee Aki) who has qualified here to get a match jersey and really make himself proud, anyone who was watching proud, Ian McKinley - no-one deserves it more.

"I know that the door was closed a bit here for him because he couldn't wear the goggles, but a champion bloke and I certainly wish him all the very best - except, potentially, if he comes back here in round two of the Six Nations! We're going to have to try to shut him down I suppose."

The Ireland coach's focus now turns to the Fijians, who suffered just their second defeat of 2017 in Catania, going down 19-10.

Peter O'Mahony was the only injury concern reported and his ear problem is unlikely to rule him out of selection. Schmidt will not call a replacement up for Keith Earls, who is facing around six weeks out with his hamstring, choosing instead to lean on the remaining wingers in the squad.

Changes

Despite Saturday's loss, Fiji are ranked ahead of Argentina, who Ireland play in their final November game, which means the scope for wholesale changes is perhaps not as big as it was last season. Schmidt is not promising everyone a game in this window.

"When we first came in two weeks ago, we said bottom line is you've to earn what you get," he said.

"You've to really commit to what we're trying to achieve and the energy levels have to be good. Guys have built to that really well, nobody's let the side down.

"It will allow us to expand a little bit, but there's a degree of comfort to have a bit of a spine of experience, for guys who've been there and under pressure before, who know what the best decision is."

Irish Independent

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