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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019

'It took me nearly a year to go to a game of rugby:' Ian McKinley making the most of a second coming

The former Leinster player suffered an eye injury that appeared to have ended his career.

EVERYDAY IAN MCKINLEY can line out to play a game of rugby is a blessing. His story is well documented but no less uplifting every time you hear it.

Ian McKinley Source: Camersport/Ian Cook/INPHO

In 2010, a stray boot from an opposing player landed in his eye. After some surgery, and a brief attempt at a comeback, McKinley lost his sight in one eye.

All the signs were pointing towards a premature retirement from playing rugby in 2011. But it was not the end, and by 2014 he was back on the pitch thanks to some protective goggles that are specially made to suit his requirements.

Of course, McKinley could never have predicted that a reprieve was coming his way, and the interim was a difficult time, as he tried to figure out an alternative life plan.

“When I retired,” he tells The42, ”I was living in Ireland for a year. I had no intentions of moving abroad or anything like that. I was working as a coach and doing a bit of study at the time, trying to figure what I wanted to do.

“I always knew I wanted to be a coach after rugby but obviously when you’re starting off that’s not going to pay bills so you might need to think of doing something a bit more suitable for that.

Ian McKinley Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I think as a sportsperson in any discipline, you want to finish sport on your terms. It’s a real hard thing to let go. For me at 21 — stopping rugby — I felt I had so many more years to give to the game.

It felt like something was taken away and that’s why I say I’m enjoying every moment now because there was a three-year gap of not playing and it felt like 300.

“It’s just a privilege to lace up a pair of boots every week and I’m thankful for it.”

The enforced withdrawal from rugby affected his relationship with the sport, and it took some time for him to draw the strength he needed to attend a game.

“It took me nearly a year to go to a game of rugby. I was forced to go to it because it was a surprise birthday party for me at the RDS. I didn’t even want to go.

“It took a while but now, with this new lease of life, I’ve no problem.”

Salvation eventually did come his way, and Raleri’s special goggles allowed him to revive his career. Following stints at clubs including, Leonorso Udine, Viadana and Zebre, he has found his rhythm at Bentton Treviso.

Ian Mckinley Source: Alfio Guarise/INPHO

He first joined the side in the 2015/2016 season and has signed a contract extension, which will keep him at the club for next season as well.

Completing a full season of rugby as a professional player brought a sense of personal achievement for McKinley.

I feel very happy with how this first year has gone. I liken it to my first year as a professional rugby player because when I was at Leinster, I played but I was never in the squad week in week out, so this for me feels like my first year of professional rugby.

“I was the only player to be involved in every game this year in both European Cup and Pro12.

“That’s really stood to me in terms of consistency and being through the highs and lows of the team, so it’s been a fantastic experience.”

27-year-old McKinley doesn’t think about that unfortunate eye-accident in 2010 at all. Doing so would be a hindrance to him, and he’s more concerned with “enjoying the ride while it lasts.”

Ian McKinley Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

But he continues to receive kind messages from people for his contribution to the goggles trial, and his campaign to get the IRFU to take part.

That came to fruition in 2015, when the IRFU announced they were applying for the trial, which was subsequently approved in 2016.

The words of gratitude allow McKinley to see how his efforts have left a positive impact on others.

“Predominantly, the messages I get are from adults and parents, so that’s huge motivation to keep going. That was part of the reason for doing the campaign a few years ago to get the goggles leaglised in Ireland.

I constantly get messages, whether it be through Twitter or through Facebook. It’s incredible the amount of people who have been affected by it. It’s very humbling.”

The former Ireland U20 and Leinster player, has been living in Italy for six years and has integrated himself into the local culture.

He’s spent three of those years enjoying his second coming as a rugby player, which culminated in him getting named on Italy’s 44-man squad for their upcoming June Test series.

Unfortunately, he didn’t make the 31-man cut, but he’s staying switched on while he remains on standby.

“I certainly know that there’s things that I need to improve in my game on a consistent level to get into that final group. It’s just been a crazy week with interest in the story, and I’m just happy to get into the 44 (man squad).

Obviously, it’s disappointing not to get in for the final call but you’ve always got to stay ready because you never know with injuries — something might happen.

“I’ll certainly be ready if called upon.”

McKinley qualified for the provisional call-up based on the old residency rules, which required a player to have lived in a country for three consecutive years before becoming eligible for the national side.

The World Rugby Council has changed the eligibility criteria this week, extending the time needed for a player to become eligible to play Test rugby, to five years.

The eligibility law has become a contentious subject in Ireland, with players such as CJ Stander and Jared Payne providing focal points for discussion.

While McKinley accepts that people are entitled to their opinions, he says it’s important to abide by whatever rules are in place.

Ian McKinley on the attack Source: Alfio Guarise/INPHO

“It’s obviously a fairly delicate topic and I can see how it’s hotly contested. For me, it’s given me a huge opportunity and all you can is play by the rules.

“What rules are there are given to you, you can only play by them. If World Rugby gives out a three-year residency rule, you can just play by the rule.

“If they give out a five-year rule, you play by the five-year rule. It’s almost like Italy playing the tactic against England in the Six Nations to the letter of the law.

“They did nothing wrong. Yes, some people would have agreed with it and some people would have wholeheartedly agreed with it. As long as you play by the rules, you can’t go wrong.

The decision shouldn’t fall on the player, it’s the people that make the decision.”

Missing out on the Italy squad is a disappointment. But McKinley is determined to focus on the positives. He has so much more to play for, and he’s thankful for every opportunity.

“It’s been a crazy three years. If you think back to the end of the 2014 season, I was playing in the lowest level of Italian rugby.

“Coming to the end of the 2017 season, it could be possible to play an International game so it’s been a crazy three years, but highly enjoyable. I’m just enjoying every moment of it. There’s a lot more to give and a lot more to go so I’m excited about that.”

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