Irishman Ian McKinley thought his rugby career was over when he was just 21.
The out-half who had earned six caps for Leinster, was forced to retire after an eye injury left him blind in one eye.
However after a move to Italy to take up a coaching role, McKinley rediscovered his rugby ability. Thanks to a pair of newly developed protective goggles, McKinley was able to take to the field again.
After starring in the Italian lower divisions, McKinley earned a move to Pro14 club Treviso in 2015, and the following year was signed by Benetton where he currently plays.
In an exclusive interview with ESPN, McKinley has spoken about the eye injury.
“A lot of sports people want to stop on their own merits. If you look at Bjorn Borg, he wanted to stop at 26 and then you have people like Brad Thorn who stop at 41. But at least they get to determine when they stopped. I didn’t want to stop at 21,” McKinley said.
“From a professional point of view it was probably the worst thing that could’ve happened to me. In the general aspect of the world it is not the worst thing to happen to anyone.
“I still have vision in my other eye, I still have two functional legs, arms and a brain. I count myself very lucky that I haven’t had other injuries.”
The 27-year-old said he found seeing his former Leinster teammates earning success difficult to talk about.
“I never actually watched rugby when I stopped playing. I didn’t watch anything but I would read reports.
“I just remember reading the report and seeing all the names of the guys I played with and it hit me really, really hard,” he said.
“I am always happy to see my mates, who I grew up with do well, but it was really difficult when I wasn’t playing. From a selfish point of view, looking at them and their successes, it was quite difficult for me to take.
“They are doing unbelievably well, with Leinster or Ireland, but I wanted that.”
McKinley playing for Leinster
Taking the difficult route back to playing rugby has paid off for the Irishman. After settling into Pro14 rugby McKinley now sees himself on the verge of an international debut.
Residency rules mean McKinley qualifies to line out for Italy, who are managed his fellow Irishman, Conor O’Shea.
Discussing his call-up in the ESPN interview, McKinley said: “I am humbled. But the thing I am most happy with is that it is not a sympathy pick.”
“I wanted to be picked on merit. I think people are progressively getting away from that image of Ian as the guy with the goggles. Now it is just Ian McKinley.”
Italy take on Fiji, Argentina and South Africa in their November Internationals and McKinley will be hoping to make an impression with the Rugby World Cup around the corner.
“Italy has given me a new lease of life. It has given me my professional career back. They were the first nation to sign up for the goggles. I can only ever be grateful because they have given me so much,” he told ESPN.
“It would be amazing to be part of a World Cup because that would be a full 10-years circle on being with the Irish U20s at the World Cup, but again it is such a long way away and this experience has taught me not to think too far ahead.”
Read the full ESPN interview here.
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