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'You need 2 eyes to play but I seem to be doing okay with just one' - Ian McKinley's rugby return

‘You need two eyes to play out-half but I seem to be doing okay with just one. ‘

McKinley wears special goggles to protect his eyes.
McKinley wears special goggles to protect his eyes.

IT MIGHT NOT ever get the Hollywood big screen treatment but Ian McKinley’s return to professional rugby is definitely more inspirational than he lets on.

The former Leinster out-half was forced to retire in 2011 after losing sight in his left eye following an injury initially sustained playing club rugby the year before.

At the time, he went on Off The Ball show and it was heartbreaking to hear the tale of a promising young player forced into premature retirement.

But fast-forward about three years and McKinley – who has returned to play professionally for Italian side Viadana – is bossing his forwards and organising his backs from the ten channel as if nothing ever happened.

Well there is one giveaway – he wears special goggles to protect his eyes, which he says make him look like a ’1940′s pilot’.

The goggles are made by an Italian brand and were discovered by McKinley’s brother, Phillip, and they have allowed him to return to rugby.

However, McKinley was reluctant to paint himself as an inspiration for making the comeback.

“There are a lot of people who are a lot more inspirational than I am,” he told TheScore.ie.

“There are some things that happen to you, which you can come back from.”

And come back he has. He moved to Udine in Italy two years ago to coach underage kids and after the protective goggles were brought to his attention he decided to give rugby another try.

Surprisingly he says that it was protecting his good eye, rather than the loss of vision in the other one, that prevented him from playing on.

“I got gouged twice in my good eye when I was playing in Ireland and that’s when I decided to give it up for good. I didn’t want to lose sight in both my eyes.”

Ian McKinley tackled by DTH van der Merwe McKinley was beginning to break through at Leinster under Joe Schmidt before he injured his eye. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That was before he started wearing the goggles and back in March he made his return with Serie C side Leonorso, which he likens to J3 standard. It was an emotional day for McKinley but as a former professional disguised in goggles, he didn’t have much trouble rediscovering his spark.

“It was surreal when I found out [that he could return to rugby] and my first game back was fantastic,” McKinley said.

“My mum came over and I scored 28 points. Now, the standard wasn’t the highest but it was still great to get the feeling back. Even being at a ruck and having a fatty fall on top of you.”

A number of prolific performances in Serie C convinced Viadana to take a chance on him. In the movie, this is when the local coach tells McKinley he has no shot of making it in professional rugby, that his injury is too severe.

But if the Dubliner thought his resurgence was due to the standard of opposition, then he was probably chuffed when his strong form transferred to Italy’s Super 10.

He’s started mostly at out-half but has played a couple of games at 12 and he has also been made vice-captain. It’s not just rugby where he’s been excelling though.

You can see from this news report that he has really taken to Italy – all we are missing is a cheeky wink to the camera followed by a ‘Ciao’.

Source: Raleri s.r.l./YouTube

“It just goes to show what you can do when you immerse yourself in a language,” McKinley laughs.

“It’s funny because I was horrendous at languages in school. I’m thriving at the moment. I was out of the game for 33 months so it has been a joy and a delight to be back. I’m the vice-captain of the team so that was a nice reward for all the hard work.”

Viadana are fourth in the league at the moment and the fact that McKinley is one of their leaders after four months – and that he is playing to such a high standard without the use of one eye – is remarkable.

But while his ascent from inactive to Serie C to professional was rapid, McKinley doesn’t marvel at his comeback the same way you or I might.

“I haven’t really been surprised and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, I just have a lot of confidence in my ability,” McKinley said.

You need two eyes to play out-half but I seem to be doing okay with just one. There are challenges – I’d be a bit ignorant if I said there wasn’t. I do a lot of exercises to improve my peripheral vision. My goal-kicking is something that I have been working hard on. When I first started back it was around 70%, which is not where I want it to be at all.

McKinley started one game for Leinster – a comprehensive win over Treviso in which he scored a try – but he is a lot more grateful for rugby after being deprived of it for so long.

Source: leinsterfans/YouTube

“Now if I have to get up at 6am for a gym session, I don’t mind it,” McKinley said.

“I don’t take anything for granted. I know there is more to life than rugby but it is still such an important part of mine.”

While McKinley doesn’t come out and say it, you can tell that the ambition that drove him from St. Columba’s to the Leinster set-up is still inside him.

He said he didn’t want to set a target of playing for an Italian side in the Pro12 or returning to Leinster, but you only have to listen to him speak to know that he sees his current situation as the beginning, rather than the pinnacle, of his return to rugby.

“I want to focus on what I can become now, not what I was,” McKinley said.

“If I’m good enough, I’d like to see what the next level might hold.”

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