■ No one de­serves the good times more than McKin­ley

De­spite los­ing the sight in his left eye, the former Le­in­ster player has gone on to play for Italy

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gerry Thorn­ley

Since his early teens he dreamed of lin­ing up in front of the Ir­ish flag, lis­ten­ing to Amhrán na bhFiann be­fore rep­re­sent­ing his coun­try in the sport he loves. That dream died, be­fore be­ing re­vived and now comes to pass to­day, al­beit for the coun­try that ul­ti­mately made Ian McKin­ley’s dream pos­si­ble.

“Sono Ital­iano,” he says, and McKin­ley is very much an Ital­ian rugby player, but this fourth Test will be a par­tic­u­larly spe­cial day for McKin­ley and his fam­ily.

While his dad Ho­race will be watch­ing back at home, as with his de­but against Fiji in Cata­nia last Novem­ber, his mother Pam, sis­ter Emma, brother Phillip and wife Cordelia will be at the game.

“I have to look at it as a nor­mal game but I sup­pose when the an­thems go there will be a sense of re­mem­ber­ing you did it when playing Un­der-20s,” he says in ref­er­ence to the nine caps he won for Ire­land at that age level. But now Italy means home. As he lines up for the Il Canto degli Ital­iani he’s li­able to think of how Leonorso in Udine re­launched his life and ca­reer after he had been forced to re­tire after los­ing the sight in his left eye. And of how Vi­adana, Ze­bre and Tre­viso led him on the path to be­ing an Az­zurri player.

In the Ital­ian base at the Palmer House Hilton Ho­tel on Thurs­day, McKin­ley seam­lessly switched from a tele­phone in­ter­view with Tut­tosport to a Skype in­ter­view with CNN, no less. Rugby and to­day’s triple header is a hard sell here­abouts but there’s no doubt­ing The Rugby Week­end’s stand­out story.

He re­counts the tale of the young boy from St Columba’s who served his three years with the Le­in­ster academy and had a taste of pro­fes­sional rugby only to have it cru­elly taken away from him.

On a fate­ful day in Jan­uary 2010 when playing for UCD against Lans­downe in the All-Ire­land League, a team-mate ac­ci­den­tally stood on his eye. De­spite re­turn­ing to play, McKin­ley was forced to re­tire in Au­gust 2011 at the age of 21. After pitch­ing up in Udine in 2012 to coach at club level with Leonorso, McKin­ley be­gan playing two years later with the help of newly in­vented eye gog­gles.

He re­turned to pro­fes­sional rugby with Vi­adana in the Ital­ian Cham­pi­onship for two years, dur­ing which Ze­bre signed him on short-term deals, be­fore Benet­ton Tre­viso signed him two years ago.

Very well spo­ken, good-hearted, gen­er­ous and loyal, he’s a credit to him­self and his fam­ily.

McKin­ley al­ways loved rugby, whether playing in his back gar­den or on the beaches of Con­nemara, though his first team sport was Gaelic foot­ball with Kil­macud Crokes, on the same un­der-9 side as Ian Madi­gan.

Ear­li­est mem­o­ries

His dad be­ing a rec­tor in the par­ish of Whitechurch, McKin­ley grew up lit­er­ally down the rec­tory, and played ev­ery­thing.

“We grew up be­tween Ed­mond­stown golf course and the Grange. My back gar­den was the ninth hole in the Grange. Columba’s had the field and we also had Mar­ley Park.”

His ear­li­est mem­o­ries of rugby are as a five-year-old watch­ing Ire­land be­ing beaten at the old Lans­downe Road by Eng­land in the 1995 Five Na­tions.

“I was with mum and dad in a smoke-filled room in Whitechurch,” he says of the fam­ily liv­ing room, “and there was a par­ish­ioner who used to come to the house, I can’t re­mem­ber his name now, and we would al­ways watch the Five Na­tions and watch Ire­land get thumped. That is my first con­crete mem­ory of rugby.”

His dad had been a cap­tain of Trin­ity and played for Old Wes­ley and the Wolfhounds as, ap­par­ently, a fiery hooker.

“But he never played for Le­in­ster, so this is the thing I have over him,” he says with a smile. “He was on the bench six times but back in those days un­less you died you didn’t get sub­sti­tuted. Then, be­ing a cler­gy­man, he re­tired at 32.

“Peo­ple would has­sle dad. ‘Get your son down to Old Wes­ley mi­nis’. But I’m so happy I played Gaelic foot­ball. I learned so much, a dif­fer­ent skill-set, a dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment. “Then when I went to St Columba’s I didn’t care about classes or girls. I just wanted to play rugby. I re­mem­ber my first train­ing ses­sion. I came home and just loved it,” he re­calls.

He was so good that he played for the Le­in­ster A schools (Un­der-18) side at the age of 15 and played three years on the St Columba’s se­nior team.

He’d ac­tu­ally con­sid­ered tak­ing a break from rugby when mov­ing into fourth year be­cause he fig­ured he wouldn’t be good enough to make the se­nior team, but al­though he looked like a boy, he was just so dar­ing and skil­ful he still stood out in games.

He was also part of a rel­a­tively vin­tage St Columba’s team that made it all the way through to the first round of the Cup in his fi­nal year. Hav­ing bro­ken into Le­in­ster U-18 and Schools sides, he went into the prov­ince’s academy lit­er­ally the day after he fin­ished his Leav­ing Cert.


“In Columba’s we didn’t have a gym pro­gramme so they ob­vi­ously saw this lit­tle weedy, small lit­tle guy and fig­ured I needed to get big­ger and more explosive. The day after the Leav­ing at 11am I was in Riverview.”

He was, he says, “in the best place you could have been.”

His penul­ti­mate game of six for Le­in­ster and only start at the RDS, was his favourite game there. He set up one try and scored an­other. Man of the Match.

“There was pres­sure too. I had 50 per cent vi­sion at the time in my left eye. I was playing for a con­tract and wanted to prove to Joe Sch­midt that he could trust me with run­ning a team.”

But soon his vi­sion in his left eye de­te­ri­o­rated again, lead­ing to a de­tached retina, a fourth eye op­er­a­tion and re­tire­ment.

The cruel ill-for­tune, along with McKin­ley’s love of playing, made the dark years even darker but also made his truly in­spir­ing come­back even pos­si­ble.

“I love ev­ery­thing rugby stands for but when you re­tire at 21 it is a re­ally hard thing to deal with. There’s some van­ity in­volved. You want to be the guy. You maybe want to earn a liv­ing. At the age of 21 I just felt I had so much more to give.

“In com­ing back, not that I was bit­ter, but I def­i­nitely had a point to prove; that I could be this player. It re­ally ir­ri­tated me when peo­ple said ‘oh, he was a great player’. That’s the thing that just killed me. I want them to say ‘he is a very good player’.”

The low­est point was a week­end in early April, 2013 when Philip vis­ited Udine with his wife Julie. McKin­ley still hadn’t brought him­self around to watch­ing Le­in­ster and Ire­land games.

“For some rea­son I read an ar­ti­cle on Le­in­ster beat­ing Wasps in the Chal­lenge Cup,” he re­calls of their 48-28 quar­ter-fi­nal win. “Mads was out­stand­ing, Rhys was out­stand­ing, Dave Kear­ney was out­stand­ing, Jack was out­stand­ing,” he adds of his former team­mates. Madi­gan scored 28 points.

“I was happy they were do­ing well. It was no fault of them. I just wanted to be a part of that. I broke down a lit­tle in front of Philip. I didn’t ask for any help. I just said to him ‘I just want to be back on a rugby field’. That’s all I said, but he took that idea and ran with it.”

Philip found John Mer­ri­gan, the stu­dent who in­vented the de­sign for the gog­gles. They held meet­ings with World Rugby and a Bologna-based com­pany called Ra­leri who man­u­fac­tured the gog­gles.


So when did he think he might be able to play pro­fes­sional rugby again?

“The day the gog­gles ar­rived. They be­came avail­able at the turn of 2014, and lit­er­ally at one minute past mid­night I had or­dered the gog­gles on­line, and they came a few weeks later.”

He trained with them from mid-Jan­uary to March be­fore playing his first game for Leonorso, his mum in at­ten­dance, and scored 28 points, but jus­ti­fies his com­par­i­son with J5s rugby by re­count­ing how play­ers hopped out of their cars with cig­a­rettes dan­gling from their mouths.

“I was pray­ing that the gog­gles would work. I couldn’t re­ally see too well. There was a lot of mud, but the gog­gles have been im­proved and that doesn’t hap­pen any­more. It was a mem­o­rable day.”

It seems like fate that McKin­ley pitched up first as a coach in Udine. Ben Lit­tle, an Ir­ish man liv­ing in Udine, con­tacted the former Ir­ish team man­ager Mick Kear­ney. He in turn con­tacted Colin McEn­tee, the then head of the Le­in­ster academy.

He had stopped be­ing bit­ter very quickly. McKin­ley even wrote a let­ter to the former UCD team-mate who ac­ci­den­tally stood on him, and who vis­ited him in hospi­tal and wrote a lovely let­ter back.

There’s been so many highs on the way back. Pre-sea­son with Vi­adana in 2014.

“I was pretty ner­vous, but de­ter­mined to show them what I could do, be­cause when peo­ple hear you’re sign­ing a half-blind, gog­gle-wear­ing out­half it’s not the most re­as­sur­ing thing. But I trained my ass off and played so well in the pre-sea­son that guys were say­ing: ‘Je­sus, you’d never know.’ So that was a big boost for me.

“Then playing for Italy was, per­son­ally, such a mas­sive mo­ment. ‘Right, okay, I’m an in­ter­na­tional rugby player now. No one can ever take that away’.”

That he has be­come some­thing of a role model for so many oth­ers has been hum­bling. This week, for ex­am­ple, the Old Belvedere Womens team tweeted him to say that their cap­tain Fiona O’Brien wouldn’t be playing but for him. Her nick­name is ‘Fog­gles’.

Peo­ple ask him is he bet­ter than the 21-year-old ver­sion. “Ab­so­lutely,” he says. “Ex­pe­ri­ence is huge.” He’s had to adapt his game. “I’m left-footed and I can’t see out of my left eye, so if I put the ball out (too far to the left) some­times I can’t see it, so I’ve had to change my body an­gle, just a tiny bit.”

As for catch­ing, a doc­tor once told him to put his hands out in front. “That helps with depth per­cep­tion, that re­ally does.”

He had cheer­ily told CNN that after miss­ing three years of his ca­reer he still feels 25, and so has plenty more to achieve. All in all, he could hardly be hap­pier now.

He and Cordelia, from Derry, have been child­hood sweet­hearts who mar­ried last July, and they love life in Tre­viso, aka Lit­tle Venice. “I’m liv­ing my dream.” These are the good times again, and no one de­serves them more.

‘‘ It re­ally ir­ri­tated me when peo­ple said ‘oh, he was a great player’. That’s the thing that just killed me. I want them to say ‘he is a very good player’

‘‘ When peo­ple hear you’re sign­ing a half-blind, gog­gle-wear­ing out­half it’s not the most re­as­sur­ing thing. But I trained my ass off and played so well in the pre-sea­son that guys were say­ing: ‘Je­sus, you’d never know.’


Ian McKin­ley in ac­tion for Benet­ton Tre­viso against Cardiff. Peo­ple ask him is he bet­ter than when he was 21 and still had the sight in both eyes? “Ab­so­lutely,” he says. “Ex­pe­ri­ence is huge.”

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