A team-mate’s stray boot blinded Ian McKinley in one eye and threatened to bring an early end to a promising rugby career – now he is not only playing again, but he could win a call-up to his adopted country’s national team
Ian McKinley has grown used to being called a pioneer.
The Dublin-born fly-half, who plays for Italian side Benetton Treviso in the Pro12, has been a driving force behind the development of World Rugby-approved protective goggles that allow people who suffered serious eye injuries to continue playing the game – and, in January 2017, he could add another first to an already lengthy list.
He could become the first player to take part in a match in France – the otherwise uninspiring European Challenge Cup Pool One encounter between La Rochelle and Treviso – while wearing them.
The Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR) announced in December 2016 it would overturn a long-standing law that prevented players who had lost an organ, such as an eye or a kidney, or a limb from playing. In doing so, it brought French rugby into step with the rest of Europe.
In fact, McKinley could have brought the end of the ban forward a few days. He was on the bench for Treviso’s Challenge Cup visit to Bayonne after receiving special dispensation to play a week or so before the announcement by new FFR president Bernard Laporte’s steering committee. But he was not called on by his coaches.
He is now looking forward to being selected for the La Rochelle trip at the end of January, and described the FFR’s decision as “another important moment for the goggles project and for anyone with any eye problems who wants to play rugby.”
McKinley – along with former Perpignan scrum-half Florian Cazanave, who now plays in Italian rugby’s second tier after losing an eye in an accident – has become a reluctant hero for people with eye problems who want to play rugby.
I didn’t sign up to be a poster boy,” he said. “But when you’re the first to do things – the first to play in Ireland, to play for the Barbarians, to play in England, to play in France, in European competitions and leagues like the Pro 12 with goggles – you’re bound to be put in the spotlight. These are big landmarks.
“I want people to look beyond the goggles – that goes for coaches as well. I think they do: if I make a mistake I get the same treatment as other players. If I do something well, I get the same praise.”
In 2010 McKinley on an academy contract with Leinster, playing for University College Dublin against Lansdowne, when the then 19-year-old found himself at the bottom of a ruck. “I took the ball into contact. I found myself on my back for a split second, and in that split second one of my team-mates studded my eye and perforated my eyeball.”
He was operated on that night. “I was told originally I would need a minimum of a year to recover before I could contemplate going back to rugby. I was back playing after six months.”
It seemed surgeons had saved his eye and his career. He made his full Leinster debut in 2011, ironically against Treviso. But the situation worsened. He said: “I played a game the day after Leinster won the Heineken Cup and my vision was bad. I had developed two cataracts which required two lengthy operations – and the trauma from the injury and the operations meant my retina just could not take any more. It detached almost completely.”
He retired from playing, but was given a rugby lifeline when offered the chance to take up coaching in Italy. The idea of the goggles was born in 2013 when his brother visited and saw how low McKinley was. A student at the National College Art and Design in Dublin was persuaded to give up his final-year project and design a pair of protective glasses so McKinley could play again.
He is modest about his influence on the events that followed: “World Rugby were also coming up with a project at the same time. The two sides, us and them, coincided – and the goggles ‘came into existence’ in January 2014.”
After three years’ injury-enforced retirement, his return to playing was deliberately and understandably low key. His first games were for Serie A side Leonorso. But, as his confidence returned, so did the dormant ability and awareness that won him a professional contract.
He moved first to Viadana, and has since played for both Italian Pro12 sides Zebre and Treviso. This year, he returned to Dublin for the first time as a player since 2011.
“I had played against Leinster for Zebre in Italy. This was a different feeling. I got a very good reception when I came on. I’m still a bit peeved because we lost the game – it was there to be won. There was less than 10 points in it when I came on, with 20 minutes to go and we shipped a try, which killed the game off. It finished 20-8 – but it was there to be won.
“I’m sure it’s something I’ll look back on in years to come with a warm heart, but when you’re paid to do a job and that’s your profession and you don’t get it done, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.”
The Italian adventure is a long way from over for McKinley. In January, he qualifies to play for Italy, but is humble about his chances of getting a game, saying national coach and countryman Conor O’Shea has not been in touch. “They seem to be doing alright. They beat South Africa,” he said.
“You’d be crazy not to want to play international rugby. Every player wants to play to their potential.
“I haven’t thought about it much because since my debut in 2009 to the start of this campaign, I’ve played 10 Pro 12 games – one and a bit a year. I need consistency, minutes and games.
“I’ve been involved in the matchday squad for Treviso in every game this year, so I’m just happy to do that and contribute to the team. Whatever happens, happens – but I’ve got to make sure my performance level is good enough to warrant consideration from anywhere else. That’s all I can focus on.”
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