McKinley’s unquenchable spirit ensures he is living the dream
Despite losing the sight in his left eye, the former Leinster player has gone on to play for Italy
Ian McKinley in action for Treviso against Cardiff Blues. “I’m an international rugby player now. No-one can ever take that away.” Photograph: Ashley Crowden/Inpho
Since his early teens he dreamed of lining up in front of the Irish flag, listening to Ireland's Call before representing his country in the sport he loves.
That dream died, before being revived and now comes to pass today, albeit for the country that ultimately made Ian McKinley’s dream possible.
“Sono Italiano,” he says, and McKinley is very much an Italian rugby player, but this fourth Test will be a particularly special day for McKinley and his family.
While his dad Horace will be watching back at home, as with his debut against Fiji in Catania last November, his mother Pam, sister Emma, brother Phillip and wife Cordelia will be at the game.
“I have to look at it as a normal game but I suppose when the anthems go there will be a sense of remembering you did it when playing Under-20s,” he says in reference to the nine caps he won for Ireland at that age level.
But now Italy means home.
As he lines up for the Il Canto degli Italiani he’s liable to think of how Leonorso in Udine relaunched his life and career after he had been forced to retire after losing the sight in his left eye. And of how Viadana, Zebre and Treviso led him on the path to being an Azzurri player.
In the Italian base at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel on Thursday, McKinley seamlessly switched from a telephone interview with Tuttosport to a Skype interview with CNN, no less. Rugby and today’s triple header is a hard sell hereabouts but there’s no doubting The Rugby Weekend’s stand-out story.
He recounts the tale of the young boy from St Columba’s who served his three years with the Leinster academy and had a taste of professional rugby only to have it cruelly taken away from him.
On a fateful day in January 2010 when playing for UCD against Lansdowne in the All-Ireland League, a team-mate accidentally stood on his eye. Despite returning to play, McKinley was forced to retire in August 2011 at the age of 21. After pitching up in Udine in 2012 to coach at club level with Leonorso, McKinley began playing two years later with the help of newly invented eye goggles.
He returned to professional rugby with Viadana in the Italian Championship for two years, during which Zebre signed him on short-term deals, before Benetton Treviso signed him two years ago.
Very well spoken, good-hearted, generous and loyal, he’s a credit to himself and his family.
McKinley always loved rugby, whether playing in his back garden or on the beaches of Connemara, though his first team sport was Gaelic football with Kilmacud Crokes, on the same under-9 side as Ian Madigan.
His dad being a rector in the parish of Whitechurch, McKinley grew up literally down the rectory, and played everything.
“We grew up between Edmondstown golf course and the Grange. My back garden was the ninth hole in the Grange. Columba’s had the field and we also had Marley Park.”
His earliest memories of rugby are as a five-year-old watching Ireland being beaten at the old Lansdowne Road by England in the 1995 Five Nations.
“I was with mum and dad in a smoke-filled room in Whitechurch,” he says of the family living room, “and there was a parishioner who used to come to the house, I can’t remember his name now, and we would always watch the Five Nations and watch Ireland get thumped. That is my first concrete memory of rugby.”
His dad had been a captain of Trinity, played for Old Wesley and the Wolfhounds as, apparently, a fiery hooker.
“But he never played for Leinster, so this is the thing I have over him,” he says with a smile. “He was on the bench six times but back in those days unless you died you didn’t get substituted. Then, being a clergyman, he retired at 32.
“People would hassle dad. ‘Get your son down to Old Wesley minis’. But I’m so happy I played Gaelic football. I learned so much, a different skill-set, a different environment.
“Then when I went to St Columba’s I didn’t care about classes or girls. I just wanted to play rugby. I remember my first training session. I came home and just loved it,” he recalls, with a click of the fingers.
He was so good that he played for the Leinster A schools (Under-18) side at the age of 15 and played three years on the St Columba’s senior team.
He’d actually considered taking a break from rugby when moving into fourth year because he figured he wouldn’t be good enough to make the senior team, but although he looked like a boy, he was just so daring and skilful he still stood out in games.
He was also part of a relatively vintage St Columba’s team that made it all the way through to the first round of the Cup in his final year.
Having broken into Leinster U-18 and Schools sides, he went into the province’s academy literally the day after he finished his Leaving Cert.
“In Columba’s we didn’t have a gym programme so they obviously saw this little weedy, small little guy and figured I needed to get bigger and more explosive. The day after the Leaving at 11am I was in Riverview.”
He was, he says, “in the best place you could have been.”
His penultimate game of six for Leinster and only start at the RDS, was his favourite game there. He set up one try and scored another. Man of the Match.
“There was pressure too. I had 50 per cent vision at the time in my left eye. I was playing for a contract and wanted to prove to Joe Schmidt that he could trust me with running a team.”
But soon his vision in his left eye deteriorated again, leading to a detached retina, a fourth eye operation and retirement.
The cruel ill-fortune, along with McKinley’s love of playing, made the dark years even darker but also made his truly inspiring comeback even possible.
“I love everything rugby stands for but when you retire at 21 it is a really hard thing to deal with. There’s some vanity involved. You want to be the guy. You maybe want to earn a living. At the age of 21 I just felt I had so much more to give.
“In coming back, not that I was bitter, but I definitely had a point to prove; that I could be this player. It really irritated me when people said ‘oh, he was a great player’. That’s the thing that just killed me. I want them to say ‘he is a very good player’.”
The lowest point was a weekend in early April, 2013 when Philip visited Udine with his wife Julie. McKinley still hadn’t brought himself around to watching Leinster and Ireland games.
“For some reason I read an article on Leinster beating Wasps in the Challenge Cup,” he recalls of their 48-28 quarter-final win. “Mads was outstanding, Rhys was outstanding, Dave Kearney was outstanding, Jack was outstanding,” he adds of his former teammates. Madigan scored 28 points.
“I was happy they were doing well. It was no fault of them. I just wanted to be a part of that. I broke down a little in front of Philip. I didn’t ask for any help. I just said to him ‘I just want to be back on a rugby field’. That’s all I said, but he took that idea and ran with it.”
Philip found John Merrigan, the student who invented the design for the goggles. They held meetings with World Rugby and a Bologna-based company called Raleri who manufactured the goggles.
So when did he think he might be able to play professional rugby again?
“The day the goggles arrived. They became available at the turn of 2014, and literally at one minute past midnight I had ordered the goggles online, and they came a few weeks later.”
He trained with them from mid-January to March before playing his first game for Leonorso, his mum in attendance, and scored 28 points, but justifies his comparison with J5s rugby by recounting how players hopped out of their cars with cigarettes dangling from their mouths.
“I was praying that the goggles would work. I couldn’t really see too well. There was a lot of mud, but the goggles have been improved and that doesn’t happen anymore. It was a memorable day.”
It seems like fate that McKinley pitched up first as a coach in Udine. Ben Little, an Irish man living in Udine, contacted the former Irish team manager Mick Kearney. He in turn contacted Colin McEntee, the then head of the Leinster academy.
He had stopped being bitter very quickly. McKinley even wrote a letter to the former UCD teammate who accidentally stood on him, and who visited him in hospital and wrote a lovely letter back.
There’s been so many highs on the way back. Pre-season with Viadana in 2014.
“I was pretty nervous, but determined to show them what I could do, because when people hear you’re signing a half-blind, goggle-wearing outhalf it’s not the most reassuring thing. But I trained my ass off and played so well in the pre-season that guys were saying: ‘Jesus, you’d never know.’ So that was a big boost for me.
“Then playing for Italy was, personally, such a massive moment. ‘Right, okay, I’m an international rugby player now. No-one can ever take that away’.”
That he has become something of a role model for so many others has been humbling. This week, for example, the Old Belvedere Womens team tweeted him to say that their captain Fiona O’Brien wouldn’t be playing but for him. Her nickname is ‘Foggles’.
People ask him is he better than the 21-year-old version.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Experience is huge.”
He’s had to adapt his game.
“I’m left-footed and I can’t see out of my left eye, so if I put the ball out (too far to the left) sometimes I can’t see it, so I’ve had to change my body angle, just a tiny bit.”
As for catching, a doctor once told him to put his hands out in front.
“That helps with depth perception, that really does.”
He had cheerily told CNN that after missing three years of his career he still feels 25, and so has plenty more to achieve. All in all, he could hardly be happier now.
He and Cordelia, from Derry, have been childhood sweethearts who married last July, and they love life in Treviso, aka Little Venice.
“I’m living my dream.”
These are the good times again, and no one deserves them more.