Monday 22 October 2018

'There was a fair amount of tears rolling their cheeks. It was a hugely proud moment and something I will never forget'

Italy's Ian McKinley
Italy's Ian McKinley
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

No longer known as 'the guy in the goggles' but rather as 'Ian McKinley, the Italian international', this remarkable journey continues.

Not that the Dubliner looks at his route to the main stage as exceptional, he merely believes he has been lucky to be able to fulfil his dream that eight years ago had descended into a nightmare.

McKinley's story has been well told but even still, to overcome the obstacles that he has faced has been nothing short of inspirational.

Having lost the sight in his left eye after a freak accident during an AIL game with UCD in 2010, McKinley was forced to retire, just as his Leinster career was threatening to ignite.

Seeking a fresh start, he moved to Italy with the intention of becoming a coach but as soon as he was made aware that he would be permitted to play rugby with specially-designed goggles, it kick-started his life-long ambition.

Fast-forward five years and the landscape looks altogether more positive for McKinley, who having made his Italy debut last November is now pushing for inclusion in Conor O'Shea's match-day squad for the Six Nations.

Qualifying to play for his adopted nation on the three-year residency rule, the out-half has thrived since being offered a second chance.

"I'm fairly ambitious and I'm realistic in my goals that I set," he tells the Irish Independent.

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"A big moment was first and foremost getting back on the rugby field. When I did a pre-season in Viadana, before going to Treviso, it was with some professionals, some semi-pro guys.

"I knew physically, mentally and skills-wise I was up to it so that was a huge confidence boost that I could really go to another level. That was quite important."

For McKinley, being able to play rugby again was a bonus. Getting offered a professional contract was dream stuff, while playing on the international stage was beyond anything he thought was possible when he was forced to hang up his boots.

"For me, there are a lot bigger stories out there in terms of resilience," he says.

"A lot of people have a lot bigger hurdles to jump over. I'm just very lucky to have a good support network around me. They are always there for me.

When I realised I could go back and play, I was 24 – so still pretty young. I felt good. Everything has just gone in a good direction both mentally and physically. There is no magic solution, it's just been a lot of hard work."

McKinley's relentless pursuit of his dream is a lesson for us all. His never-say-die attitude has helped get him this far but it is has been his performances on the pitch that have earned him international recognition.

"To play international rugby, you need to have a serious amount of consistency," the former Ireland U-20 out-half explains.

"Especially playing No 10, you need a huge amount of consistency in terms of your communication, your distribution, your kicking.

"A huge part of it for me is not losing my instinct. You have to play on instinct. If you feel something is right, you've got to go with it and back what you feel."

Coming to terms with losing the sight in his left eye was one thing but McKinley has faced plenty of other challenges along the way.

In 2015, during his time with Zebre, he was set for an emotional return to the RDS, where he had played with Leinster for three years, but the IRFU denied him the fairytale return because they did not permit the use of protective goggles for players. 

"Absolutely (it hurt)," he says. "That was very difficult to get my head around. Luckily that has all been changed and players are able to play without any problems, which is a massive bonus.

"More importantly, kids that weren't able to play rugby can play freely now, which is fantastic for them. There was an awful lot of work that went on behind the scenes by people who I could be here all day listing off.

"For me, the right decision was made. For people who want to play at a professional level, or for men, women and young kids who want to partake using these goggles."

McKinley launched a campaign to help get the laws changed and a year later, he received a rapturous ovation when Treviso rocked up to the RDS.

It's not just his own career that McKinley fought tirelessly for. Nowadays he is inundated with messages from people from across the globe who are facing similarly tough road.

"It's incredible, the amount of people who are out there, even now. If I can be a point of reference for them, that's absolutely fantastic. I'm more than happy to help them whatever way I can.

"Whenever people see you and they don't know your story, you almost expect people to refer to you as 'the guy with the goggles'.

"I suppose it just comes with the territory but my family and other people tell me that in articles, they don't say 'the guy with the goggles' any more. It's Ian McKinley.

"For me, that's a victory in itself. If I miss a kick, I want to be judged in the same way that anyone would be. If you land a touchline conversion, you want to be judged the same way.

"That has been a hurdle to overcome in itself but I think that's slowly but surely not becoming a problem any more."

McKinley's international debut arrived in November when he came off the bench and kicked a late penalty in Italy's win over Fiji.

While his journey to get to that point has not been easy, his family and wife were there every step of the way and they all enjoyed the unforgettable moment.

"You try and use the emotional side of things in the best way you can but at the end of the day, when I was sitting on the bench, I was just analysing the whole game," he says.

You're trying to figure out key things for the team and what might work against the other team. I was very much thinking about what I could do to contribute to the team.

"That's from the non-emotional side of things. Then, on the emotional side, when it's over, you can reflect on it with great fondness.

"I could see my whole family in front of me when I was singing the national anthem.

"There was a fair amount of tears rolling their cheeks. It was a hugely proud moment and something I will never forget."

McKinley's next aim is to ensure that he becomes a regular for Italy. The 28-year-old has featured at full-back for Benetton this season, as he faces competition for the out-half slot.

The Azzurri arrive in Dublin on February 10 to face Ireland and should McKinley take to the Aviva Stadium pitch, it would be another landmark moment in an incredible story.

"I think we're going into the Six Nations with a huge amount of positivity. There are going to be high expectations," he adds.

"If it (playing against Ireland) does happen, it will be a special feeling."

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