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'This isn't about me, this is about the team... it can't be an Ian story'

Italy out-half Ian McKinley goes up against some very familiar faces on Saturday in Chicago.

Murray Kinsella reports from Chicago

SOON AFTER HE made his debut for Italy in November 2017, Ian McKinley got a message from Joe Schmidt.

His former Leinster coach was among the many people congratulating the out-half for his remarkable achievement just over six years after he had been forced to retire from rugby.

Schmidt was Leinster boss when McKinley was breaking through – Michael Cheika had handed him his debut – and understood that McKinley was one of the brightest prospects in Irish rugby.

Ian McKinley Benetton out-half McKinley is set to face his native Ireland on Saturday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Though his career hasn’t worked out exactly as most would have predicted at that time, what McKinley has done in the game is even more impressive than continuing through the ranks with Leinster and, quite probably, Ireland would have been.

His story has been told many times – the loss of sight in one eye, the retirement, the move to Italy to coach, the return to playing with goggles, the rise through Italian rugby – but remains awe-inspiring.

Now, McKinley is set to add another chapter by playing against his native Ireland on Saturday in Chicago, looking to contribute off the bench as Italy attempt to upset Schmidt’s side at Soldier Field.

“Joe was very good in the sense that when I got my first cap, he wrote to me,” said McKinley at Italy’s team hotel in Chicago this week.

“He just wrote me a message, him and Johnny Sexton wrote to me straight away.

“When I finished rugby… not that I stepped completely away from it, but I stepped away from the guys who I knew and the whole structure that I was involved in.

“I wanted to try and find my own way, my own destiny as it were.”

While McKinley hasn’t stayed in close contact with Schmidt in the years since he was forced to call it quits after his eye injury, the message was a nice thought. 

Peter O'Mahony with Ian McKinley McKinley with former Ireland U20 team-mate Peter O'Mahony. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

There will be familiar faces on the pitch on Saturday too, in the likes of former Leinster team-mates Jack McGrath, Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy, but McKinley is doing his best not to get caught up in the occasion.

“I suppose the biggest thing is to just take it as another game,” said the St Columba’s College alumnus. “People will say that it can’t be like that, but it has to be.

“This isn’t about me, this is about the team and putting the performance we had against Ireland in the Six Nations right. Even just to get to play in Chicago in this stadium, it’s unbelievable. Even just to be in that is pretty cool.”

McKinley, who has three Italy caps so far, was in Conor O’Shea’s wider squad for the Six Nations visit to Ireland earlier this year but didn’t make the matchday 23, instead watching from the sidelines after being involved in the pre-game warm-up.

“I think any opportunity that you don’t play, there is going to be disappointment but at the end of the day, this can’t be an Ian story,” said McKinley.

“Maybe whenever I hang up the boots for the second time, you can reflect on that. But it just can’t be now because I’m here to do a job. We’re here to do a job. Romantic stories can be done later on.

“Listen, you have to embrace everything as well.

“I can’t be robotic about it because that would be incorrect but you embrace it, you acknowledge it and hopefully that brings out emotions as well, but you have to make sure that you are in control of them.

Ian McKinley kicks a penalty McKinley has three Italy caps so far. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

“Even in the Six Nations, I was standing on the sideline and the Irish anthem was playing but I only sang the Italian one. My loyalty is there for the time being but I don’t give that sort of thing a huge amount of thought. Those emotions come to me as I feel.”

McKinley’s wife is coming to Chicago from Italy for the game, while his brother, sister and mother will also make a whistlestop visit for the weekend.

While McKinley himself may be doing his best to keep composed and focused ahead of facing Ireland for the first time, it will no doubt be an emotional occasion for his loved ones.

“They are ridiculously loyal, like a good old Irish family,” said McKinley. “My mum is a real Irish mother. They have been there every step of the way.”

“They live everything. This for them is like the cherry on top of the cake.

“But they are just happy to see that I’m happy and I’m able to do what I love doing. For them, that’s the biggest thing that gives them joy and they are also able to get trips to Chicago as well!

“Obviously they pay for it but they say, ‘We get to travel the world to watch you play so that’s fantastic for us.’”

Saturday is the start of a huge month for McKinley and Italy, with a meeting against Georgia to follow in two weekends’ time before Australia and the All Blacks visit them.

Ian McKinley celebrates with his family McKinley with family after a game at the RDS. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

McKinley is blunt in recognising the Georgia clash as “a must-win,” given the consistent calls for the Georgians to have a shot at being involved in the Six Nations via a promotion-relegation game against Italy.

Italy are confident that they belong at the top table, however, and appear to be making strides under O’Shea. But the development of Italian rugby has been most apparent in the Pro14 through Benetton, who McKinley plays for, and Zebre. 

The Dublin native says Benetton’s set-up has changed “a ridiculous amount” in recent years, with the new-found continuity in personnel helping to improve the culture and buy-in from the entire club.

“Definitely the perception has changed, I think. We are overturning teams and making our home a fortress. It’s so important that Italian sides are competitive in Europe.” 

On a personal level, McKinley is keen to get back onto the pitch for Italy, his last cap having come almost 12 months ago against South Africa in Padova.

The out-half has endured several injury issues since this year’s Six Nations, but he feels ready to show his quality against the familiar faces in green on Saturday.

“I have had to certainly be on top of things like studying the game, more video work and that sort of thing,” said McKinley of a frustrating period.

“Listen, I’m as prepared as I could be for this game. Mentally, I’m in a good place and as I said, I just need to enjoy it. It’s been a year since I have actually played an international game now so you realise that these opportunities just don’t come along very often.

“You really have to grab it with two hands, embrace it and see where it goes.”

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Murray Kinsella

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