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Saturday 25 November 2017

McKinley can see clearly now the pain has gone

Dublin-born out-half Ian McKinley. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
Dublin-born out-half Ian McKinley. Photo: Seb Daly / Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

"After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before." Job 42:10.

All Ian McKinley wanted was the chance to come home on his terms. He knows he will never regain what he had lost. He just wanted to be accepted for what he is now.

Two weeks ago, and five years after he made the decision never to play rugby again, Dublin-born out-half McKinley stepped on to the historic Ravenhill turf in Belfast in the Guinness Pro12 to play for Zebre against Ulster.

The Italians, as they usually do, lost horribly. But it was difficult not to sense the scent of victory in the personal achievement of their replacement out-half.

"When I hugged my family afterwards, it brought home how much it meant to be back in Ireland, playing on Irish soil," says McKinley.

Blind in one eye as a result of a freak accident, McKinley, now 26, retired on medical advice five years ago but an ineradicable itch prompted a remarkable U-turn in 2014, aided by specially-manufactured goggles.

However, despite forging a new career in Italy, the IRFU denied him the chance to play any games in Ireland, citing safety concerns about the product, despite its endorsement by World Rugby and the absence of any recorded safety incident in two years.

As snow fell quietly in Parma in December, McKinley was sitting in his kitchen when the email ping pronounced the IRFU's decision; he was free to play in Ireland with his new eyewear.

"I was just gobsmacked. I'd put so much energy into it and nothing had happened for a long time. And then, suddenly, the doors are flung open. It was like a last-minute drop goal or something. Wow, we've got this. It was hard to take it all in at once."

When he did so, he didn't think of himself first, of that impending Pro12 visit to Belfast or even the more immediate prospect of Leinster, and so many former colleagues, visiting Zebre.

Instead, he thought of eight-year-old Ryan Totton, the Coleraine child who last summer had been hauled from a mini-rugby game because he was wearing the same goggles.

Just as he had done when he delivered a final presentation to the IRFU last autumn.

He wasn't nervous as he faced the men in suits for he was telling his life story. And one that would now resonate for so many others with a similar affliction.

"I fully believed in it, I've lived through this. I wouldn't be pushing a product if I didn't feel it served its purpose. I'm not willing to risk total blindness just to play rugby.

"And I believe this product will get even better. And then you get the letters from parents saying this product has helped their sons and daughters. It makes it all worthwhile.

"It was something that a lot of work went into, a lot of campaigning and behind-the-scenes work from my family. We were really pushing hard for a positive decision.

"It was important for me to make that presentation before Christmas on the significance of this issue. It's a really good thing for the kids in mini-rugby to play safely. It's a hugely positive development.

"The biggest thing that we took out of this was the educational aspect. When you have a new product coming out, I know you need to know everything about it before it being implemented.

"We felt that after two years of use and trials without any major incident, we needed to put the pressure on to make it legal in Ireland.

"This is promoting rugby in a good light, promoting the fact that a player can play at any level regardless of whatever ability or disability you have. That's very important for me."

His own handicap, or disability, or impediment - it is up to you what you see - stemmed from the stray boot of a team-mate that innocuously caught his left eye in 2010.

It has utterly shaped his story, for sure. His life's journey unalterably changed course.

But he doesn't want it to define him.

He is Ian McKinley the rugby player. He is not Ian McKinley the half-blind rugby player.

"I'm sure people are sick and tired of hearing the story of my injury, certainly after five years it's repetitive," he says.

"It's about where I am now. People will obviously see someone wearing goggles but I want to be judged as the player I am. I don't want any sympathy because of what I have.

"But I also don't want discrimination. I want an equal playing field. These goggles give me the confidence to know that I won't be targeted in my good eye."

That he felt the need to protect his sole, fully-working eye stems from a series of shocking incidents in Ireland - twice he was allegedly gouged in his good eye by opponents in club rugby games here as he tentatively stepped back into the game.

Another of rugby's dark secrets.

Sadly, the absence of any video allowed the despicable acts to remain unpunished. He didn't allow the momentary thuggery of others to deter him from pursuing his route back into the game he loves.

"Unfortunately it still happens, after some games guys still tell me that they had something put in their eye," he admits.

"It's not something that is going to go away any time soon, unfortunately."

As a teenager with Leinster, some of us had him ahead of Ian Madigan upon the conveyor belt of talent; Joe Schmidt kept faith for a time even after the injury before all parties bowed to what seemed like the inevitable.

Renewing an acquaintance with his former club was another important step on his journey last month.

"Firstly, I wanted to win, we wanted to win and it was bitterly disappointing losing in the manner we did in an ugly game on an awful day," he says of Zebre's meeting with Leinster.

"It was surreal, it made me feel old because I had played with all the Leinster coaches. I got a few tackles that hurt which was great! I didn't play well so I actually wasn't that happy. It was a nice occasion but bittersweet.

"Coming back is not on my mind at the moment anyway. I know I can perform in the Pro12, I've done it since I was 19.

"It's not new to me but I need consistency now, I've only played nine games lately so I need to do more before jumping to any conclusions. I'm still improving at 26, as I did at 19 and will be at 36."

But could "they" ever become "us" again?

"I'm not ready to play for Leinster yet," insists McKinley, who will be playing his rugby somewhere else next season; though not in Ireland.

"People can see that I can perform now at a high level regardless of whatever happened in the past. If you make a kick from thirty metres, you get applause. If you miss it, you get slated. That's what I want.

"Maybe I'll complete the circle some day. Right now I just want to play to the best of my ability."

He never thought he could see so clearly.

Irish Independent

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