By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ian McKinley's family in Ireland have shared the "highest highs and lowest lows" in his journey from losing sight in one eye and seemingly his rugby career to preparing for his debut on the international stage with his adopted nation Italy.
The 27-year-old will be among the replacements when Italy take on Fiji in the Sicilian town of Catania on Saturday, six years after the permanent loss of sight in his left eye as a rising star in his home team of Leinster forced him to retire.
However McKinley, who was initially injured by a stray boot, has remarkably worked his way back through the lower leagues in Italy with the aid of a pair of protective goggles he helped to design and fought to have approved by authorities.
"In the beginning, when he lost his eye, he struggled to pour hot water into a cup of tea," McKinley's brother, Philip, told Reuters on Friday as he, his sister, mother and father made the long bus trip from Milan to Catania after a late departure from Dublin saw them miss a connecting flight.
"If Ian accepted the word 'no', he probably might still be coaching rugby and not playing. Even when you're told no, it's about still believing in yourself. That's why he's here - determination and courage - and we're so proud of him."
The idea for the goggles came about when Philip, 36, visited his younger brother while he was training a junior team in the town of Udine. Inspired by a nearby Leonardo da Vinci exhibition recreating some of his inventions, Philip decided there must be a solution to end Ian's frustration at being unable to play.
Designed by a biomechanical engineering Masters student back in Dublin, use of the glasses was initially opposed in Ireland, Britain and France, leaving McKinley's then home of Italy as the only option to resurrect his career.
The flyhalf scored 28 points in the unglamorous third tier of Italian rugby in his return to the game in 2014 but even then international rugby - a probability when he captained Ireland at Under-20 level and became one of Leinster's youngest ever players - was not even a pipedream.
"It was just about the sheer desire to play and, as he said, feel the scrapes on your knees when you go to bed at night. The joy to be able to do what you love was the driving force."
McKinley quickly rose through the ranks to play Pro14 and European rugby for Treviso where top internationals - whose well wishes have poured in this week - watched on in amazement and asked: "How can a guy with one eye be an outhalf?"
"Part of this story is a miracle," Philip said. "At the end of the day, he has to go out and tackle (France's) Mathieu Bastareaud and kick a ball into the corner in the 79th minute. That part is still beyond my belief and comprehension."
If all goes to plan, McKinley could add the most important chapter yet to his inspiring story when Italy travel to Dublin to play Ireland in the Six Nations next February where at least one Irish family will be decked out in the blue of the Azzurri.
"It would be an unforgettable day and it would be a day that would be more than just rugby," his brother said. "It would be about overcoming adversity, following your dreams and sticking to your guns."
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Ken Ferris)