By Alasdair Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Ian McKinley was living the dream.
At the age of 20, the flyhalf was on course for a career in the upper echelons of rugby having earned a senior contract with European champions Leinster and broken into Ireland’s Under-20 team alongside players like Conor Murray, Jack McGrath and Peter O’Mahony.
That was in 2010, when the quartet were still dreaming of stepping out on the pitch together in a Six Nations match.
On Sunday, almost a decade later, that dream might finally be realised, but not in the manner they would have imagined. McKinley now wears the blue of Italy, his adopted country for the last six years, but his mere involvement in international rugby is the climax to a tale of triumph over adversity that began nine years ago.
“One of my team mates stood on my face,” McKinley said. “Unfortunately, a stud went into my eyeball and it just burst. It was a real freak accident.
“I managed to get back on the field six months after the injury and things were going well with Leinster, then my retina detached and I lost complete vision in that eye. I announced my retirement at 21.”
Everything darkened for McKinley, not just his vision but his perspective on life and its cruelty in so abruptly derailing his career. “I think any sports person wants to retire on their own terms,” he said. “The best example now is Andy Murray, you see how sad he is. His body isn’t doing what he wants, and he knows he can do a lot more," McKinley added, referring to the British former world number one tennis player who was forced to retire this year due to a hip injury. “It’s very hard, especially when you’re 21, to make that decision. That lived with me for a fair bit.”
McKinley remains grateful to Leinster for providing him with the chance to gain coaching experience after the accident, which landed him a life-changing offer to coach rugby in the Italian town of Udine. But it was the death of his friend and former team mate Nevin Spence in a slurry tank accident in 2012 that motivated McKinley to start playing again, after he initially refused to even register as a player in Italy.
“I thought: ‘I’m sitting here feeling sorry for myself, why don’t I do something about it?’,” McKinley said. “In the back of my mind I always had this dream that I can play this game and contribute, that was always niggling at me.”
It took some unsavoury incidents for McKinley to begin wearing the protective goggles he has become synonymous with.
“In my third game back, I was gouged in my good eye and then gouged another time in a club game,” he said. “I don’t want anything to happen to my good eye which is the only reason I use them. People think it gives me 10-20 percent extra vision, but the goggles are solely protective.”
McKinley’s hesitation to charge into a ruck without guaranteeing protection of his one functioning eye is understandable, but he faced an uphill battle before rugby authorities widely sanctioned the use of goggles. Italy signed up for a World Rugby trial on their use in 2014, allowing McKinley to play on Italian soil and rise through the ranks to the Pro14 with Zebre and then Benetton Treviso.
However, Ireland only softened its stance after a 13,000 signature-strong petition encouraged the IRFU to relent and join the trial in 2016 while England and France also initially refused to take part before changing tack. McKinley’s struggle has made him a figurehead for the use of goggles in rugby.
“People write to me every week, it’s incredible how many people have similar stories,” he said.“That gives me motivation to keep on playing. It gives me a huge lift.”
McKinley came off the bench against Scotland to make his Six Nations debut at the age of 29 in the opening weekend of this year’s tournament, having qualified via the residency rule. But as he awaits the visit of his old friends in the Ireland team on Sunday, the flyhalf insists he did not have to think twice when his adopted nation offered him a crack at international rugby. “In this five-year rollercoaster, Italy have been there when I needed them the most and shown a huge amount of faith in me. How can I ever thank them enough? I hope with my performances.
“When you’re playing against your mates of course it’s always special,” he added. “You might want to tackle them harder or run into them harder, but I remember the result the last time (54-7 to Ireland in November), so I definitely don’t want a repeat of that.”
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie, editing by Ed Osmond)