"In one minute and out the next" - Ian McKinley focusing on family after latest set-back
"This has been my home for almost 10 years. I decided to stay, with my family, here."
Ian McKinley was forced to retire, for the first time, at 21, after a training ground accident. His latest set-back has done nothing to quell his fighting spirit, or positivity.
Back in March, Ian McKinley and his wife, Cordelia were confined to their house, in Treviso, and getting into new routines during a strictly enforced lockdown. He spoke to House of Rugby at the time and explained how Italy had been his home for a decade and how he was committed to sticking around and doing his part.
He was trying to stay fit, reading, flaking through Playstation games, tracking the Covid-19 updates in his adopted country and across the world and keeping in touch with family and friends. He had been with Benetton Treviso since 2016 and was hopeful of being able to finish out the season at some point.
However, once the pandemic stretched into April, May and beyond, such hopes were dashed. In the middle of June, McKinley was released by the Italian outfit. Despite being an experienced outhalf, and one with eight Italian Test caps to his name, the 30-year-old was no longer required. The likes of Alessandro Zanni, Tito Tebaldi and Dean Budd were among seven other senior players finishing up as Treviso reduced their wage bill and focused on up-and-comers.
Speaking with us from his in-laws' family home in Bellaghy, County Derry, McKinley says he is focusing on his family and keeping his options open. It is time to take a breather, after a remarkable 10 years of battling adversity and proving himself time and again, but McKinley is sure he wants to stay involved in rugby.
"Things happened really quickly," he says, "but we're back in Northern Ireland now and we have done the two weeks of quarantining. Eight of us [at Treviso] either retired or were released. I was obviously disappointed. I had a lot of good friends and got on well with the staff, but it is part and parcel of rugby - in one minute and out the next.
"It's a bizarre period of time for a lot of people, including those in professional sport. You can see with Southern Kings [suspending playing activities] and the RFU [in England] letting go of people. Two club sides in Italy have dropped out of their main league too. It's a bizarre, crazy period.
"My playing future is up in the air right now; I'd love to give you an answer on that. There are so many things that aren't guaranteed."
For McKinley, this is not the first set-back in his career and he has been through enough to know it will not be the last. He lost the sight in one eye, back in 2011, after catching a stray boot to the face when he was training with Leinster.
While 70% of the vision has come back in that eye, McKinley required protective goggles and spear-headed a campaign for a number of years to get World Rugby to approve them so he could play at the top level. He started off playing third division club rugby before signing with Viadana in 2014. He played a season with Zebre before Treviso snapped him up.
Having to scrap every step of the way to revive and then progress his professional rugby career, McKinley is all about perspective.
"Whenever I retired from rugby first, at 21, I recognised that you can't really rely on rugby. It can be very fickle, at times. I do have a plan, now, about what I want to do when I stop playing. Any sportsperson, whether you are Sergio Parisse or Jack Clifford [forced to retire at 27, this week], you're never fully prepared. But, for me, I do feel more prepared for whenever that day does come.
"I love the sport. I've coached for a few years and I have been a part-time coach at every club I've been at."
Something McKinley has poured some of his energies into is an initiative that is encouraging sports clubs around the island to send in skills videos to Mash Direct [details in the caption below]. The winning entry can win €5,400 for their club and training sessions with McKinley and former Ireland captain Rory Best.
"At all times, and especially in these past six months, I've found that exercise can really help your mental health," says McKinley. "It can help clear your mind sometimes and you can set yourself different targets. We're looking for people from all sorts of clubs - running, rugby, hurling, football, whatever - to send us along their videos. It's great to be involved with it."