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'Something you can’t fathom or comprehend': McKinley pushing for remarkable RWC run

The Italy out-half represented Ireland at the Junior World Cup in Japan a decade ago, nobody could have predicted the journey he would take to get back.

McKinley in action against England during the Six Nations.
McKinley in action against England during the Six Nations.
Image: Inpho/Billy Stickland

FOR IAN MCKINLEY, going to Japan with Italy next month, 10 years after featuring there for Ireland in the Junior World Cup, would mark a remarkable full circle on his unlikely rugby journey.

The 29-year Dubliner, who was forced to retire from professional rugby in 2011 after losing the sight in his left eye, is currently in Limerick preparing for Saturday’s World Cup warm-up clash against Ireland at Aviva Stadium.

It will be his second appearance against his native country if he plays on Saturday, having featured off the bench when the Azzurri lost 54-7 to Ireland in Chicago last November.

After resurrecting his career in Italy thanks to specially-designed goggles, his most immediate goal is to make the cut when Conor O’Shea reduces the 38-man squad who are currently going through their paces at UL.

He has picked up eight caps since making his debut two years ago against Fiji but faces a battle with Carlo Canna and Tommaso Allan for inclusion in the 31-man World Cup squad.

A decade after he went to Japan for a Junior World Cup with the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Dave Kearney, Jack McGrath and Rhys Ruddock, returning to Japan after taking the most unlikely route to Test rugby would be a special outcome indeed for the out-half. And he is forever grateful to Italian rugby for offering him a path there.

“When you look back in 2009 I was part of the Ireland U20s team playing in a Junior World Cup in Japan,” says McKinley, “fast forward 10 years, and to think I could be possibly representing Italy there in a full World Cup, it’s something you can’t fathom or comprehend.

“But, at the same time, you live in the present. My place is certainly not secure. There are three of us vying for that position. Carlo Canna, Tommaso Allan and myself are working hard to make the decision as difficult as possible with that as well.”

His road back came initially with a coaching role with the small Leonorso club in Udine, close to the Slovenian border. The introduction of the goggles saw a hesitant return to play with Leonorso in 2014, which stepped up considerably with a move to Viadana in the national championship.

In 2015, when those from the U20 class of 2009 were featuring in the World Cup in England, McKinley’s resurgence continued by providing cover at Zebre, leading on to a full contract with Benetton Treviso where he has spent the last three seasons.

“Italy has been very good to me. I think the whole Italian Federation in itself, and I include all the other clubs that I have shown a huge leap of faith, have been superb.

“If you think about it, it’s certainly not an easy decision to acquire the services of a half-blind goggle-wearing number 10.

On paper it’s not really the easiest thing to do.

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“But they have certainly shown a huge amount of faith. I constantly say the way I can repay that is by putting my best performances forward. Guys competing for the same position, you just make sure you are competing to make sure that the team is better.

“I would hope I have done that with the clubs who have shown faith in me in Italy and the international side. The amazing thing is you are always learning about this game. It is constantly developing, it’s evolving.

Ian McKinley McKinley at training in Limerick this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Even the four-year gap to getting back to a semi-professional level, the difference from when I retired initially to going back and playing at a higher level was just incredible. It has been one hell of a journey but the journey isn’t over yet.

“Going to Japan, if I’m lucky enough, could be the closing of a circle of ten years, an incredible journey. But a long way to go. This journey has taught me not to think too long ahead.”

About the author:

John Fallon

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