Ian McKinley: ‘You do take for granted the simple things in life’
Under lockdown in Treviso, the Benetton and Italy outhalf is getting used to the new normal
Ian McKinley: “For me personally I try not to look at the news too much, because I think you can just get bogged down if you watch the news all day.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Today marks the 16th day of Italy’s lockdown and as a result one of the many challenges of living there is trying to make one day distinguishable from another. Another is not becoming overwhelmed by the unrelentingly grim nature of that country’s daily narrative.
Eventually even someone with the equilibrium of Ian McKinley – whose career story enables him to be more phlegmatic than most about sport’s current hiatus – can struggle to cope. This day last week, day nine of the lockdown, looking down from his fourth floor apartment on the empty streets below, McKinley admits that he felt utterly drained.
In Italy there are far more restrictions to their lockdown, and more punitive punishments for disobeying them as well, with fines of up to €5,000 or court summons for people who make excursions outdoors without valid reasons, ie shopping, walking the dog or going to essential work.
“The atmosphere is surreal,” says McKinley. “On Wednesday we did our weekly shop. Well, I did it, because only one person can do it a time. Even going to the butcher’s only one person is allowed in at each time. The rest of the time, you’re standing outside and people are keeping their distance. So it is very surreal.”
McKinley’s apartment is one of four on the fourth floor and they no longer call into their neighbours as they used to do, instead maintaining social distancing, while volunteering to shop for one elderly couple. Another couple give their kids some fresh air on a small grass patch near the car-parking area.
The shopping expedition to the butchers and a supermarket required an hour and a half to two hours, not that McKinley was complaining, for that took up his morning.
The 30-year-old Benetton and Italy outhalf, who was a product of St Columba’s College and the Leinster academy before rebuilding his career and life in Italy after losing his sight in one eye, recommends a key coping mechanism.
“Having a structure in your day is just so important.”
McKinley is fortunate to live with his wife Cordelia, and he thinks about teammates who are living on their own.
They’re also grateful to have a dog, Mela, which means ‘apple’ in Italian. Mela is a cross breed they picked up from a rescue shelter a few years ago, and she provides one of the few conditions for venturing outside, if no more than 200 metres.
“If you do some exercise that can take you up to lunchtime, and then if you can take your dog for a walk that can help bring you up to dinnertime, and then do something after dinner. You try to break it up into three different blocks.”
McKinley has lived in Treviso for almost four years and loves it. Located in the Veneto region in the north, to the east of the badly hit Lomardy region, it’s about 250km from Bergamo and 280km from Milan, where the sight of the military on the street is more commonplace. “But the police also patrol the streets here and if you don’t have the correct documents you risk incurring a fine.”
Staying fit is a bigger challenge in an apartment. Benetton send out individualized programmes, depending on a player’s equipment or space.
“I’m lucky enough to have a bit of an area to run around my apartment block, which takes about 20 seconds. So I try to come up with variations, but it’s very difficult. I have some stuff here in the apartment for weights, but it’s more house appliances. You use your body as the gym more than anything.”
He has also developed new interests to help structure his day.
“A lot of cooking. A lot of baking. Writing, would you believe? Just jotting down things, things that have gone on in your career, and for the first time in about 12 years I’ve a PlayStation, which I managed to nab off Dean Budd, a teammate. Apparently they’re completely sold out on Amazon. So I’m also re-living some childhood memories, which I otherwise wouldn’t have done!”
His most recent Netflix watch?
“I just finished Tiger King today. It’s a bit controversial. It’s about people who own tiger parks in America but then it takes a certain twist. So it’s Netflix at its best, trying to grip an audience on some very interesting stories. You’ve time to watch these things, so that can also occupy your day.”
Cordelia, an English teacher, has also been writing a daily blog for the Belfast Telegraph.
“The reason for doing that is because it’s history,” explains McKinley. “Nothing like this has happened since the famous Spanish flu and also it was to give an insight to people who haven’t experienced this. Ireland and the UK are basically where we were a couple of weeks ago, so it was to give people an insight into what living conditions are like and what you should be prepared for.”
McKinley and Treviso last played on Friday, March 6th, when recording a bonus-point 37-25 win over the Dragons in Newport. The day previously, the squad had been told that the following two home games against Ulster and Munster had been postponed.
They arrived back on the Saturday, and later that evening Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced stricter measures on Italian television to cope with the unequalled spread of the Covid-19 virus in Italy.
Conte upped those measures again to a virtual lockdown the following Wednesday evening.
“I remember myself and Cordelia went into the city centre that afternoon to one of our favourite restaurants for a bit of lunch and the chef said it was the first time he’d cooked anything for three days. At least it gave people some time to come up with some sort of strategic plan, even though it’s not easy. It didn’t go from 100 to zero.”
From the next morning, Treviso became a ghost city. “The streets went completely quiet. The shops were closed. Almost nobody was out walking.”
Despite these measures, Italy became the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. With a national population of 60 million, the number of deaths had risen to 7,503 as of last Thursday.
It’s a beautiful but now tortured country, and Italians ask themselves ‘Why us?’ But as with almost everything around this coronavirus epidemic, there are no definite answers.
McKinley, who has been living in Italy for nine years, says: “There are a few reasons which have been stated by politicians or by media outlets. It attracts elderly people and Italy has the second biggest old-age population per head of any country in the world after Japan. Maybe it’s the good wine or the weather, or the carbohydrates, but they must do something right.
“Then there’s the traditional greeting of two kisses on the cheek, for women and men. We don’t do it in Ireland but here it’s a real big thing, and then also the issue with having the schools closed so early, which is why I assume the UK did it so late.
“The primary and secondary schools were the first to close here, and if your parents are working, where do the kids go? They go to the grandparents, so if the kids were carrying the disease they infected grandparents, unfortunately.
“I don’t know if they are the reasons, but they could have contributed in some way to Italy having so many cases.”
After the death toll in one day reached a global high for any country of 793 last Saturday, Conte ordered the closure of all factories and businesses, save for groceries and pharmacies.
The number of fatalities dropped on Sunday and Monday, but rose again over the next two days, albeit the numbers contracting the virus appear to be easing.
But there’s only so much news, almost all bad, that one can take.
“For me personally I try not to look at the news too much,” says McKinley, “because I think you can just get bogged down if you watch the news all day. I check it in the morning and just before I go to bed, just to keep informed.”
There are few positive or pleasant aspects from the new normal but McKinley is surely not alone in detecting one. “You speak to a lot of people you haven’t spoken to in a long time.”
He’s always been a credit to a great family, and McKinley has also been Skyping or Facetiming his parents, Pam and Horace, every one or two days as opposed to once a week, and likewise brothers Philip and Andrew, as well as his sister Emma.
McKinley knows it can’t be easy for his parents that he’s living in Italy at the moment, so regular contact is reassuring.
“We haven’t known anyone who has got an infection which has been a miracle given 50 people have died here in Treviso, so we’re very fortunate.”
He uses the same adjective in having two homes, Ireland and Italy.
“From an Italian point of view, as the prime minister said, it’s the biggest threat to Italy since World War 2. Italians are in some ways very different from Irish people but there are a lot of similarities, and togetherness is a big thing here and a sense of community which I would liken to Ireland.
“We’re going to need that going forward and, fingers crossed, get through it. But there’s an awful lot of worry at the moment with people and so the more people can stick together and help each other the better.”
As with all sportspeople nowadays, this pandemic has made McKinley appreciate how much he loves the game, although you always suspected his appreciation went deeper than fuelled his remarkable comeback. But he does miss the daily life of being a pro rugby player.
“As a human race we need some form of organisation in our day. I desperately miss training with my team-mates, the banter and going for a coffee with them. You do take for granted the simple things in life.”
With each passing week and month the threat to sports clubs the world over increases, and Benetton and Zebre are no different.
McKinley is also out of contract at the end of the season but jokes: “Given I retired aged 21 originally without many plans whenever that day comes I would hope to have learned from that. I definitely have an idea what I want to do and we’ll cross that bridge whenever it comes.”
There are so many bigger issues out there and the future is so hard to predict that it’s not something he dwells on particularly.
“The main thing is we’re healthy. Other people are going through a lot worse situations whether it’s a family death or crumbling businesses. We are very fortunate to be in the situation we’re in so it would be wrong of me to think any other way. We get on with it. It’s a small sacrifice really if you’re told to stay in the comfort of your home to ride this out.”