McKinley’s sight fully focused on Italy debut

by James Hendicott
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IAN MCKINLEY, a former Leinster rugby player who was forced to temporarily retire from the sport in 2012, has found a new lease of life with Benetton Treviso after returning to the sport in 2014.
And in the most unlikely of turnarounds, finds himself called up to the Italian national squad.
McKinley attended St Columba’s College in Rathfarnham, starring in the schools team before making half a dozen appearances for Leinster. His early retirement came due to taking a boot in the eyeball in 2010, an injury that took time to have an impact.
In the long term – due to repetitive tackle impacts – it would cost him the sight in his left eye. McKinley has returned to the sport wearing eyewear designed to protect him, and plays at Pro-14 level despite being totally blind in his left eye.
His return to regular Pro-14 action (he’s made nearly 30 appearance for Benetton Treviso) and the fringes of the Italian squad is nothing less than astonishing.
Talking to ESPN this week, McKinley recalled his period of forced retirement.
“A lot of sports people want to stop on their own merits,” he explained. “If you look at Bjorn Borg, he wanted to stop at 26 and then you have people like Brad Thorn who stop at 41. But at least they get to determine when they stopped. I didn’t want to stop at 21.
“From a professional point of view, it was probably the worst thing that could’ve happened to me. In the general aspect of the world it is not the worst thing to happen to anyone. I still have vision in my other eye, I still have two functional legs, arms and a brain. I count myself very lucky that I haven’t had other injuries.”
There were certainly painful moments for McKinney when it came to watching his former Leinster team mates go on to achieve great things, especially in the early days, shortly after then Leinster boss Joe Schmidt had praised his character on retirement.
“When you are talking about the darker period [it was when] my brother was over visiting me,” he recalled.
“There was a particular Leinster game where they walloped Wasps in the Challenge Cup. I just remember loads of my mates were playing that day.
“I never actually watched rugby when I stopped playing. I didn’t watch anything but I would read reports. I just remember reading the report and seeing all the names of the guys I played with and it hit me really, really hard.
“I am always happy to see my mates who I grew up with do well, but it was really difficult when I wasn’t playing. From a selfish point of view, looking at them and their successes, it was quite difficult for me to take. They are doing unbelievably well, with Leinster or Ireland, but I wanted that.”
Life in Italy has worked out well, though, moving initially to get away from home and coach in a new environment before getting his new lease of life on the field.
“I am humbled. But the thing I am most happy with is that it is not a sympathy pick. I wanted to be picked on merit. I think people are progressively getting away from that image of Ian as the guy with the goggles.
“Now it is just Ian McKinley. That has been a big challenge for me but I think people are starting to say that which is good.
“Italy has given me a new lease of life. It has given me my professional career back. They were the first nation to sign up for the goggles [allowing use on the field]. I can only ever be grateful because they have given me so much.”
His adopted nation might yet give McKinley a World Cup appearance. “It would be amazing to be part of a World Cup because that would be a full 10-years circle on being with the Irish Under-20s at the World Cup, but again it is such a long way away.” He concludes: “This experience has taught me not to think too far ahead.”

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