Saturday 24 August 2019

'Ian McKinley's story is staggering, but to us he's just a player' - Italy coach Conor O'Shea

Conor O’Shea hails fellow Dubliner McKinley after handing him his international debut for Italy against Fiji last weekend

A Twitter post from the Italian Rugby Federation showing Ian McKinley receiving his first cap for the country from president of the organisation Alfredo Gavazzi
A Twitter post from the Italian Rugby Federation showing Ian McKinley receiving his first cap for the country from president of the organisation Alfredo Gavazzi
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Even with his focus fully on the task of guiding his team through the final quarter against Fiji, Conor O'Shea's attention drifted for a moment to the small contingent of Dublin accents making a racket in the stand below him.

In the Sicilian city of Catania, one Irishman handed another his first cap. Ian McKinley's journey to the elite level of international rugby is one of the most extraordinary there has been and made headlines around the world.

It is widely known, but his tale doesn't lose its impact in the re-telling.

Blind in his left eye as a result of an accidental collision while playing for UCD in 2010, the promising former Ireland underage out-half called time on his career in 2011. He moved to Italy to begin coaching, but using new technological advances he began playing again with the use of a goggle-trial that was only sanctioned in certain jurisdictions.

After a year in the semi-pro realm, he got a contract at Zebre and has since moved to Treviso. After qualifying to play for Italy under the same law that allows Bundee Aki and CJ Stander to play for Ireland, O'Shea brought him into wider training squads and kept in touch.

Last Saturday, he was named on the bench and with the Azzurri six points up he got the call that he was to replace Carlo Canna to steer the ship home. He pulled his goggles on and stepped up to the plate.

"I did hear his parents and brother and sister screaming from the stands which is usually something you don't hear, but they were very loud when they saw him togged off and ready to go with 20 minutes to go," O'Shea recalls with a smile.

"He's a guy who brings a great amount of control. The great thing about him is that with 20 minutes to go last week, the score at 16-10, I wasn't thinking he'd go on as a 10 in his first cap and do anything but the perfect job.

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"Not even a hint in my mind of thinking of someone on his first cap, just an unbelievably well-organised, level-headed, driven bloke who will go on as if he's just playing a normal game of rugby."


The former Ireland full-back is fully aware of the back-story but while he appreciates the journey, he is treating McKinley as just another player. The former Leinster fly-half wouldn't want it any other way.

"It's incredible, but I think it would be wrong now and even for him... it's something he'll reflect on in years to come rather than now because his focus is just on being a rugby player and being the best player he can be," he says.

"I'd a good chat with Joe (Schmidt) about him six, eight months ago when I was wondering what he was like when he was coming up through the ranks and he's an incredibly organised and driven person with a really good skill-set.

"To be able to do, now, what he does given what's happened him is staggering. But to us he's just a rugby player.

"He came over here about four years ago and puts me to shame at least, I did ask him how he manages to speak Italian in an Italian accent because mine is a terrible Italian with an Irish accent, but he seems to be able to get away with it!

"From his time in Udine when he immersed himself in coaching and then coming back as a player, his first little stint when he got an opportunity with Zebre and then going to Treviso, it's a great story but also a sign of someone with huge mental strength to be able to overcome what he has.

"Standing over, not the winning kick, but the kick to consolidate our win against Fiji last week, was a great moment."

Adding McKinley to the ranks is all part of O'Shea's commitment to building depth in the Italian ranks.

The former Harlequins coach is in his second full season in charge and, while he knows he has work to do to catch up with the other Six Nations sides, he is seeing progress.

An injury to Tommaso Allan has opened the door and given the 27-year-old a chance to shine and while he has work to do, O'Shea has been happy with his progress.

"He's been playing exceptionally well recently for Treviso and managing them around the pitch," he says.

"One of the areas he needs to work on is, not his kicking from the floor, but his general kicking game. He's worked incredibly hard on that, it's coming on in terms of both length and variety.

"He attacks the line very well, he's got a natural instinct to be able to attack the line. But it's that general control of the game that he's worked very hard on.

"It's probably something we spoke about six, seven months ago and all Ian said to me was 'my job is to give you a headache, that's what I want to do'. It's not that he's given me a headache, he's given me another option.

"One of our challenges over the next couple of years is that we're beginning to develop... when you have Giovanni Licata and Matteo Minozzi came off the bench for us, 20 and 21, we're beginning to see some young players beginning to bubble up here but we need depth both at club and national level to be able to compete over a season.

"We know it's a long-term project, but we're beginning to see both franchises play better, we're beginning to see young players come up.

"Every team can bring through young players, but there is some exceptional talent coming up.

"We're beginning to make progress in the right way, but the gap between us and - maybe not Fiji and Argentina, etc - but the top nations is a significant one to bridge. We're at least putting the right structures in place to allow us to go forward on a positive basis.

"We'll just pick them off one by one."

Last Saturday's win in Catania was the second clash O'Shea's side have had against the Fijians, so he is well placed to deliver a scouting report for the Irish fans making their way to the Aviva Stadium today.

And he says those supporters are in for a treat.

"People should look at the games Fiji played against Australia and Scotland over the summer before saying the Fijian tight five are inadequate, because they're not," he says.

"They're unbelievable ball-players. We'd a tackle completion of around 93/94 per cent, we didn't miss many tackles, but if they line-break they're a very difficult side to stop.

"You'd want to be very careful, they still have that Fijian flair. Leone Nakarawa is just an unbelievable rugby player. Three or four of his off-loads, yes it can be stopped but there are some where you don't know how he's done it. He's a very special talent.

"Don't think their scrum is going to be something that can be rolled over as people might traditionally think.

"They still have the flair and the ability to line-break, I think anyone going to the game is in for a treat.

"We managed to keep them from being able to show that, if you'd told me before the game we'd have kept them to 10 points I'd have signed the contract straight away.

"But they have the ability to score from absolutely nothing, it's a full house at the Aviva and that will get their juices flowing. The pitch will be good for them, so Joe will give a few people a run out and it'll be a spectacle.

"Ireland will win, I've no doubt, but be ready for some absolutely mesmeric rugby by the Fijians."

His focus is on Argentina, who visit Florence today, before Italy round off the month with a rematch against the South African side they beat last season.

McKinley is back on the bench today and if he holds his form and continues to improve, there's no reason he won't be involved when the Azzurri come to Dublin in the second week of the Six Nations.

"One hundred per cent, listen, he's in our squad now and he's been brilliant," O'Shea says of the idea.

"I sat down with Ian for the first time properly about six or eight months ago in Treviso. We'd a good conversation and it was a breath of fresh air, speaking to him.

"Just his mindset, his knowledge of, not just rugby, but of life has given him a really good perspective on things and he's very balanced.

"Due to everything he's gone through, he is so methodical and organised in everything he does."

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