A friend of ours, Chris Lee who manages the Elite Rugby Banter page on Facebook had this tale to tell and we thought it it was worth a share
In my opinion the greatest story in rugby history is still being written. It’s entering the final act. I’ve probably told you before, but if you don’t know who Irish Rugby’s greatest player is, gather around and let me tell you why you have never heard of him.
There was a time in Irish rugby where the next big outhalf was called Ian. It wasn’t Ian Madigan – though talented Madigan was in this guy’s shadow. It wasn’t Ian Keatley who was stepping into O Gara sized boots. It wasn’t Iain Humphreys either. The Ulster man was never his older brother. Ian McKinley was the talent, the Great White Hope.
Act 1 – The fall.
McKinley didn’t come from a rugby nursery. His school has probably never produced another pro. A small academic school with a cracking hockey pitch. The kind of school my school put a hundred points on, and we were no great shakes either.
McKinley wasn’t mercurial, he was controlling. He brought the ball to the line and attacked. He kicked bloody well too. As a 19 year old he started for Ireland at an u20 world cup. We won our first game v Argentina with him and Nevin Spence getting all our points. Spence tragically died along with his older brother 5 years ago attempting to rescue his dad from toxic fumes in a slurry pit. Another Irish talent that will never be capped but never be forgotten.
Despite nailing his kicks, Ireland’s campaign derailed against Wales. McKinley went back to the club game. And that’s where it happened. Bottom of a ruck, bottom of a boot. It was his team mate, but steel doesn’t discriminate. A stud to the eye, a gash right through it. The doctor said it looked like a piece of cling film was holding his eye ball on.
McKinley had several surgeries. He went back to rugby but he kept encountering blurry vision. He won a man of the match award for Leinster playing against Treviso an Italian team who’s role in his story will become increasingly important. He only had 70 percent vision in the bad eye, and it was blurry as hell. Twice opponent’s gouged his good eye. He was risking it all. One day while driving some friends and sitting at a set of traffic lights it went. Retina detached game over Ian. 6 caps into his Leinster career the great white hope hung up his boots. 21 years young.
Act 2 – The climb.
Ireland is small. Rugby in Ireland is even smaller. McKinley had to leave, it was too painful. The career he could never have was being played out by all his peers. He coached and he was a good coach, but it was all too soon. A Leinster rep called him one day and asked would he consider moving to Italy to coach at udine. A small town on the Slovenian border. He didn’t speak Italian, neither did his girlfriend. They jumped at it.
He still yearned for rugby. He took a coaching role with a division three Italian team. He kept his body in shape. He kept kicking. But he was depressed. He was struggling with language. He was in a small town. His brother visited him 2 years later and saw his mood was bad and decided to do something about it. His brother went back to NCAD in Dublin. What Grey is to rugby they are to design. He found Johnny Merrigan halfway through a final portfolio and he asked him to drop it and design a set of goggles. They had two needs. Protect the good eye, and use a lens to expand his field of vision.
In 8 weeks a prototype was born. The Journey from drawing board to working prototype was fast. Merrigan worked with the youthful exuberance of a student unhindered by doubters motivated by a project to change a life. He did his part, but when the goggles were done McKinley was still going to have to lace up the boots and go back to the game that had been so cruel to him. He was to take that opportunity for Leonorso in the Italian third division – and so the climb began.
McKinley picked up an agent in 2014 and moved to Viadana. He played two seasons of semi pro Super 10 Rugby. First at vice-captain, then captain of the formerly great club (Tana Umaga played there). His Italian was coming on and people began to take notice. In 2015 he signed short term to play Pro12 rugby with Zebre during the world cup as cover. He could be a pro again – but his goggles were not approved for wear outside of Italy. A few months of frustrating admin followed. Scotland and Wales approved the trial, but it was us, his former country who were last of the Pro12 nations to get on board.
5 years after winning man of the match against Benneton Treviso he signed for them. Lenorso, Viadana, Zebre, Benneton Treviso. When he played for Leinster they had just won the European Championship – in the meantime they’d won two more. He left the biggest club in Northern Hemisphere rugby, to drop 3 tiers in Italy. Tomorrow he will start for Treviso against Bath. It will be his first every European Champions Cup game. A tournament he’d have undoubtedly won if his life had taken another course. For McKinley there is only one more step on this ladder. One more honour his career can bring him.
Act 3 – The test?
Conor O’Shea has named his 34 man Italian panel for the Autumn Internationals – and Ian McKinley is in it. Tommaso Allen is injured – he’s the man who held McKinley out of the summer tour. Italy will play Fiji, Argentina and South Africa in the autumn. To take the field against a heavyweight like South Africa with his disability would be among the most remarkable stories in rugby history. To prove himself on that stage and maybe make it to Dublin during the 6 nations would be a fairy-tale.
Ian McKinley was disabled, retired and exiled. What the hell is my excuse?