Inspirational Ian McKinley not giving up on Test dreams yet
"That's been put on hold at the moment."
We have spoken with Ian McKinley three times in the past seven months and, each time, his circumstances have changed dramatically.
Back in March, he spoke to us on House of Rugby from a locked down Italy and was hopeful the Covid-19 pandemic could be curtailed and the rugby season could be salvaged.
In August, McKinley was back in Northern Ireland and re-assessing his options after a cash-strapped Treviso had released himself and eight other senior players. He was about to launch into some coaching with Rainey Old Boys and the Ballymena Academy, but not giving up on his playing days yet.
When we spoke again, during the week, McKinley was spinning his wheels after stricter restrictions had been imposed in Northern Ireland and curtailed the new rugby season. He was making good use of his time, though, as he spoke about Fighting Blindness’ Retina 2020 Public Engagement Day (on November 7) and prepared for some punditry duty on Virgin Media for the Ireland vs. Italy game.
McKinley started his career with Leinster and retired in his early 20s after losing sight in one eye, in a training ground accident. Medical interventions ended up restoring partial sight in his injured eye and he made a remarkable rugby comeback after lobbying hard to get protective goggles cleared for use in the pro game. He started off in the third tier of Italian rugby, was signed up by Zebre, made his debut for the Azzurri after becoming Italian-qualified and then joined Treviso.
It is an inspirational story, but McKinley is keen to write a few more chapters as a player on the world stage. He tells us:
"I just hope that from my playing, people with vision impairments can realise that you can get to the top of the mountain, somehow.
"It's one thing getting to international rugby. It's another thing actually playing well. That's one thing I'm definitely not fully happy with - nine games [at Test level] and only one win. But hopefully it does give people a bit of inspiration, that they can do it."
Seven years after losing his sight in one eye, and battled his way back to surgeries, trial games a red-tape, McKinley made his Italy debut against Fiji in 2017.
His last Test outing was against his native Ireland in August 2019 and even though he is currently out of the Italian system, he is not giving up on his Test dreams.
"When you're out of the Italian system, it's a lot more difficult. My last game [for Treviso] was in February, when we played the Dragons, so a long, long time. But it's as good a time as ever to have a little break and regenerate the batteries.
"I've unbelievable respect for the likes of Parisse, Sexton and Alessandro Zanni, who has just retired, as they're doing it at the top for 15, 16 years. It's an incredible feat."
McKinley, then, is taking stock over the next few months as, like most of us, he keeps track of the news, updates, restrictions and tries to keep moving all the same.
As for the match between his home country and his adopted country, McKinley has talked up a 20-year-old outhalf as one to watch.
"People are really excited to see Paolo Garbisi and he has played well, and been a captain for the Under 20s. They have three good out-halves at Treviso now, in Tommaso Allan, Ian Keatley and Paolo, and he has started those first three [Guinness PRO14 games].
"Then there's still that back row of Brams Steyn, Sebastian Negri and Jake Polledri. When they're on form and getting front-foot ball, they really are some of the most devastating ball-carriers you can come up against."
Fighting Blindness' Retina 2020 conference Public Engagement Day taking place virtually on Saturday, November 7 from 10.30am to 2pm. More information on the event can be found here fightingblindness.ie