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Ian McKinley announces retirement at 31 after 'unconventional career'

By Ciarán Kennedy
Ian McKinley. (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

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Ian McKinley has announced his retirement from rugby, pulling down the curtain on the second act of his remarkable career. McKinley previously retired from the game at the age of just 21 following a horrific eye injury which saw his retina detached and resulted in him losing sight in his left eye.

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He subsequently moved to Italy to work in coaching, and began campaigning for the use of protective goggles to be permitted during matches. McKinley reopened his playing career and eventually secured a contract with Benetton in 2016.

The former Ireland U20 international, who played six times for Leinster, qualified to play for Italy under residency and went on to represent the Azzurri nine times, making his international debut in 2017.

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He made his first Six Nations appearance in 2019, and played in four of Italy’s five fixtures. That same season he was part of a Benetton squad that embarked a club record run of 11 games unbeaten and reached the Pro14 play-offs, losing narrowly to Munster at Thomond Park.

McKinley continued to work closely with the rugby goggles programme throughout the second half of his playing career, playing a role in the development process as well as championing their use.

World Rugby announced that Rugby Goggles had officially come into law in May 2019. To date, 2,300 players have signed-up to the goggles programme.

McKinley moved back to Ireland during the coronavirus pandemic last year and took a break from playing, taking up coaching roles with Rainey Old Boys and Ballymena Academy instead. He had recently been working as a pundit on Irish television during the Six Nations.

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McKinley confirmed his retirement via a statement released this morning:

“Today, aged 31, I officially announce my second retirement from playing rugby at all levels of the game,” McKinley said.

“My professional career has been unconventional. 10 years ago, I was forced aged 21 to announce my retirement from Leinster and Ireland U20s, when my left eyeball was perforated and my retina detached, following a rugby injury.

It was very hard to accept this decision.

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I moved to Udine in Italy to coach rugby. After three years an opportunity arose to become the first player in the world to use Rugby Goggles and play with protection for my good eye. This return led to a global campaign seeking access to play at the highest levels of rugby, albeit as a visually impaired, professional out-half.

By helping to bring into law the worldwide use of Rugby Goggles, it has been an incredible joy to see thousands of other visually impaired players enabled to play rugby. This will always give me an enormous sense of achievement and pride.

“Following the Barbarians, Pro14, Champions Cup, Six Nations and International campaigns, today I get to finish my playing career again, but happily this time on my own terms.

I want to sincerely thank all the teams, coaches and staff from school to international level that I have been a part of. I am deeply indebted to teams in Ireland such as St Columba’s College, UCD, St Mary’s College, Leinster Rugby and Ireland underage teams who nurtured and developed my early career.

“I am also particularly grateful to those in Italy who gave me a second chance – Leonorso, Viadana, Zebre, Benetton and of course the Italian national team.

I also want to thank the rugby community in Ireland and Italy especially, who have been incredibly supportive in my playing journey from beginning to end. And to the teammates who have become friends for life.

“But mostly Id like to thank my amazing wife, family and friends who have lifted me up in my darkest days and have supported me unconditionally throughout my playing career.

“I look forward to what the future holds.”

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Ian McKinley announces retirement at 31 after 'unconventional career'

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