Ian McKinley said that heading to Japan with Italy next month, 10 years after featuring there for Ireland in the Junior World Cup, would circle a remarkable rugby journey.
The 29-year Dubliner, who was forced to retire from professional rugby in 2011 after losing the sight in his left eye, is currently in Limerick preparing for Saturday’s World Cup warm-up clash against Ireland at Aviva Stadium.
It will be his second appearance against his native country if he plays on Saturday, having come off the bench in Chicago last November in the 54-7 loss to Ireland.
But his primary aim now, after resurrecting his career in Italy thanks to specially-designed goggles, is to make the cut when Conor O’Shea reduces the 38-man squad who are currently going through their paces at UL.
He has picked up eight caps since making his debut two years ago against Fiji but faces a battle with Carlo Canna and Tommaso Allan for inclusion in the 31-man World Cup squad.
McKinley said that a return to Japan would be special, 10 years after he headed there for a Junior World Cup with the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Dave Kearney, Jack McGrath and Rhys Ruddock, all hoping to take another step towards becoming senior Irish internationals.
That journey for McKinley suffered what seemed in irrevocable setback when an accidental kick in January 2010 led to the loss of the sight in his left eye and his forced retirement the following year.
He is forever grateful to Italian rugby for giving him a way back and the crowning glory could come next month in Japan.
“When you look back in 2009 I was part of the Ireland U20s team playing in a Junior World Cup in Japan.
“But, at the same time, you live in the present. My place is certainly not secure. There are three of us vying for that position. Carlo Canna, Tommaso Allan and myself are working hard to make the decision as difficult as possible with that as well,” said McKinley.
His road back came initially with a coaching role with the small Leonorso club in Udine, close to the Slovenian border. The invention of the goggles saw a hesitant return to play with Leonorso in 2014, which stepped up considerably with a move to Viadana in the national championship.
In 2015, when those from the 2009 U20 who made the grade were featuring in the World Cup in England, McKinley’s resurgence continued by providing cover at Zebre, leading on to a full contract with Benetton Treviso where he has spent the last three seasons.
“If you think about it, it’s certainly not an easy decision to acquire the services of a half-blind goggle-wearing No 10. On paper it’s not really the easiest thing to do.
“But they have certainly shown a huge amount of faith. I constantly say the way I can repay that is by putting my best performances forward. Guys competing for the same position, you just make sure you are competing to make sure that the team is better.
“I would hope I have done that with the clubs who have shown faith in me in Italy and the international side. The amazing thing is you are always learning about this game. It is constantly developing, it’s evolving.
“Even the four-year gap to getting back to a semi-professional level, the difference from when I retired initially to going back and playing at a higher level was just incredible. It has been one hell of journey but the journey isn’t over yet.
“Going to Japan, if I’m lucky enough, could be the closing of a circle of 10 years, an incredible journey. But a long way to go. This journey has thought me not to think too long ahead,” he added.