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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 22 October, 2019
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'It's pretty phenomenal what he's doing and I wish him the very best of luck' - Cullen

Dubliner Ian McKinley could find himself running out at the RDS in the colours of Benetton Treviso on Friday night.

Ian McKinley in action for Zebre last season.
Ian McKinley in action for Zebre last season.
Image: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

LEINSTER WILL GET their Guinness Pro12 season under way at the RDS on Friday night but it’s a Dubliner on the opposing side who may well be commanding the most attention.

And rightly so. Ian McKinley’s journey over the past five years is fit for a Hollywood script.

For him to play at the RDS again, five years after retiring from the game with an injury that caused him to lose the sight in his left eye, would add another remarkable chapter to an altogether inspiring tale.

McKinley has been settling in well at a new-look Benetton Treviso during pre-season and may be included when Kiwi coach Kieran Crowley names his side on Thursday.

The former Leinster out-half secured a permanent deal with the Italian outfit after a stint with their Pro12 rivals Zebre last season, which included a Pro12 appearance against Ulster in Belfast in March.

Nothing has been straightforward in his return to the top level which began with a coaching role in Italy in 2014.

Soon afterwards, with the aid of protective Raleri goggles, McKinley was able to showcase his on-field talents once more and he soon moved up the grades.

He’s conquered mental, physical and administrative battles to get back to this point.

Two gouging attempts on his fully-functional right eye saw him call it quits, but the goggles gave him a second chance he couldn’t refuse.

A door was ajar for him in Italy but the same one had to be jimmied open in his homeland.

Thankfully for McKinley, and other rugby players with sight issues, the IRFU eventually agreed to join World Rugby’s trial of the Raleri goggles once their safety concerns were met, the move coming after McKinley had petitioned for them to follow the lead of their Italian counterparts.

McKinley, 26, is remembered fondly at Leinster and the feelings of goodwill from all corners highlight the humanity at play here. This is much bigger than rugby.

Leinster coach Leo Cullen. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen can’t speak highly enough of the former Ireland U20 international.

“Ian came through the academy here, he was always a great kid,” Cullen said.

“He was involved in a small capacity. He obviously had that injury when he was playing with UCD and it just shows the character of the guy and the resilience that he has.

“It’s pretty phenomenal what he’s doing and I wish him the very best of luck because he was a great kid.

“When I was playing I was a slightly older player but you could see at that age that he was a very determined individual and I’m delighted for him that he’s back playing.”

Leinster centre Noel Reid played with McKinley in the academy and as pleased as he is to see the out-half playing in the Pro12, he is also conscious of the skills he has in his locker ahead of Friday’s game.

“I would have played with Ian growing up,” Reid said.

“He was a really talented player and he obviously had his injury and he was off for a couple of years but it’s great to see him back.

“If he starts, he poses a big threat. He’s got a good left boot and he’s a really good game manager at 10.”

With a new manager in place and some shrewd signings made, particularly in the backline, Treviso are being tipped to improve vastly on last season’s dismal campaign which culminated in a foot-of-the-table finish.

McKinley will have plenty of competition for the No 10 shirt with Italy international Tommasso Allan also vying for the starting out-half spot.

Kiwi Marty Banks, an out-half/fullback who has travelled a road less taken to this point, which included a season of professional rugby in Russia before fringe roles at the Hurricanes and Highlanders in Super Rugby, will also link up with the club later in the year when his duties with Tasman conclude in New Zealand’s provincial competition.

Crowley has added further Italy internationals in utility back Tommaso Benvenuti, fullback/wing David Odiete and scrum-half Tito Tebaldi, while Fiji international winger Michael Tagicakibau will bolster their arsenal out wide.

Conor OÕShea Italy head coach Conor O'Shea. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

With Conor O’Shea now in charge of the national team, many are expecting Italian rugby to start buzzing again, from the top down.

It comes as little surprise to hear coaches talk up the strengths of sides they are expected to put away with room to spare. But you get the impression that Cullen, who is missing a number of first-choice players through injury, means it on this occasion.

“They’ve brought some Italian players back into the fold there,” Cullen explained.

“They’ve cleared the decks a little bit. They’ve got a new coaching team as well.

“Kieran Crowley has a lot of experience in the game and that will surely add to what they have already.

“I think Conor O’Shea will have a huge influence as well. I think they’ve been trying to place a huge emphasis on trying to strengthen the two club teams.

“They’ve had three pre-season games. They’ve had two good wins against Grenoble and they won heavily against Zebre at the weekend as well. So they’ll be well primed for us.”

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Alan Waldron

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