Ian McKinley: Dubliner is forever grateful to Italian rugby for its second chance

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Three of Ian McKinley’s nine caps were against his native Ireland
Date: Thursday October 7th Time: 22:00 CEST
Cover: BBC Two NI and the iPlayer

“Everyone asks me, ‘From Venice to Bellaghy?'”

Ian McKinley laughs as he tells BBC Sport Northern Ireland’s Ulster Rugby Show that he is the latest in a remarkable rugby life, coaching the first team for the All-Ireland League 2A team Rainey Old Boys from Magherafelt .

A school boy star at St. Columba’s College in Dublin, McKinley entered the Leinster Rugby Academy along with many who became household names and was selected ahead of Ian Madigan as they both rose to prominence in the Irish provinces.

But just as his career began after playing six games for Leinster and representing the Irish U20s, his 2010 days seemed to be over instantly when an accidentally stray shoe caused him to lose sight of his left eye.

A comeback was attempted, but six months later he was a retired rugby player after the risks of continuing were judged to be too great.

“I just had an accident at the bottom of a backpack during a game when a stallion burst into my eyeball and it burst. So I retired when I was 21. That was pretty traumatic, ”recalls the now 31-year-old.

“Ireland … Dublin is such a small place, you went to nightclubs or bars and guys you would have played against or guys who might be older than you said you were such a good player. It’s such a shame What happened? You were destined for great things. “

“I hated being spoken of in the past tense. That left a real chip on my shoulder.”

Nevin Spence on duty for the Irish Wolfhounds in March 2012
McKinley says the tragic death of his friend and Irish U-20 teammate Nevin Spence brought a perspective about his own troubles

Spence’s death really hit me

Such a conversation prompted McKinley, with Brother Philip’s encouragement, to investigate whether suitable goggles could be found that would enable him to return to the sport he loved.

After traveling to Italy in 2012 to work as a rugby youth coach, he returned two years later to the bottom tier of the Italian national team for the Leonorso Udine club.

“Before the game, the boys literally had a cigarette in their mouth or a hamburger in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other. But it was just perfect for me to get used to the glasses and see if my skills are still there.

“I just wanted to get out of Ireland and try to go my own way.”

But there was another great driving force. The sudden death of his Irish U-20 teammate Nevin Spence along with his father Noel and brother Graham in a tragic agricultural accident in September 2012 hit Ian hard.

In addition to his deep grief, this led to a perspective on his own troubles.

“You realize pretty quickly that much worse can happen to you. What happened to the whole Spence family really hit me.

“There is a guy who had the ambition to play international rugby and it was so cruelly taken from him.

“You have two legs, you have two arms and the will to do something.

Ian McKinley on duty for Zebre against S015carlets in Pro12 on October 2nd
After McKinley resumed his rugby career in 2014 at home in Italy, he received a fixed-term contract from Zebre in September 2015

“I couldn’t have been prouder”

McKinley’s form for Leonorso Udine quickly brought him a professional contact with Viadana in the top division of the Italian home game.

Italy’s involvement in the 2015 World Cup meant that he received a fixed-term contract as cover with the then Pro12 club Zebre. He was back in elite rugby and would give anything.

Growing up, the thought of playing the national anthem with his chest held high before his first international match was a dream.

It actually happened on November 11th, 2017, but the melody he sang along to was Il Canto degli Italiani as opposed to Amhrán na bhFiann.

“I couldn’t have been prouder,” said the 31-year-old, recalling his Italian debut when he came on for Carlo Canna in the second half against Fiji.

“We won the game and a former Italian international was in the locker room after the game and came up to me and said ‘You are in a very rare club to play your first game for Italy and win'”.

The win over the Fijians was the Dubliner’s only win in his nine Italian games.

“I had to adapt my game”

As throughout his “second career,” McKinley downplayed the effects of his disability when asked about it.

“Now that I’ve retired for the second time, I can talk a little more about it.

“I remember a particular game in 2016. It rained horizontally for 80 minutes and I couldn’t see anything. The best way to describe it is when you’re driving in the rain and can’t use the wipers.”

On days like this, McKinley had extra goggles strategically placed around the field of play, but there have been instances when even contingency plans didn’t do much good.

“You would be in the middle of Twickenham and Vunipola is running towards you and you might only see one leg and you would attack that leg.

“I had to adjust my game a bit. I’m left footed, so sometimes I wouldn’t see the ball when I kicked, so you had to change your posture, which was unnatural for me, but you just had to keep working on it. You think a way.”

The Londonderry village of Bellaghy has been McKinley’s home since his return to Ireland last summer, and he and his wife Cordelia welcomed son Malachy into their lives last December.

“We loved kids from school and when I moved to Italy she followed me. Eight years over there and I had to come back,” says McKinley, who was named Rainey Old Boys’ first team coach the same day he was announced his retirement from playing last March.

“It’s out of love. The woman is from Bellaghy and I am happy to be there. It was strange times, but everything is opening up again and everyone was pretty nice. ”

Hear the full interview with Ian McKinley and more on the Ulster Rugby Show on BBC Two NI and iPlayer on Thursday, October 7th at 10pm EDT


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