Italy’s favourite Irishman: Ian McKinley ready to beat the odds again

To his team-mates, Ian McKinley is an inspiration, but as the Irishman turned Italian prepares to face his old friends at Soldier Field, this Saturday’s Test is not about him but the Azzurri doing themselves proud against Six Nations rivals.

Italy’s favourite Irishman: Ian McKinley ready to beat the odds again

To his team-mates, Ian McKinley is an inspiration, but as the Irishman turned Italian prepares to face his old friends at Soldier Field, this Saturday’s Test is not about him but the Azzurri doing themselves proud against Six Nations rivals.

The story of the former Leinster fly-half’s resurrection as a professional rugby player following the loss of sight in his left eye is a remarkable tale, never mind the fact that the 29-year-old is now a Test international in his adopted country.

It is a tale of a short-lived comeback with limited vision after a horrific eye injury in a club game, followed by the detached retina that ended his professional career at the age of 21. Then followed another fightback, first through coaching in Udine, then playing with specially manufactured and eventually World Rugby-approved goggles at Viadana and then a professional contract with Zebre before the move to Treviso and a Test debut last December against Fiji. It is has been well told in his own words in a recent first-person piece on thesportschronicle.com.

Now McKinley gets to move the story onto another chapter as he faces his homeland for the first time having earned a place on the bench in Conor O’Shea’s matchday squad to face Ireland in Chicago on Saturday.

While his wife and family in the stands may have loyalties divided between family and country, McKinley will have no second thoughts about eschewing ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ for ‘Fratelli d’Italia’ when the anthems crank up before kick-off.

A weird week? Not at all.

“No, I put a bit of thought into it. I suppose the biggest thing is to just take it as another game,” the Benetton playmaker said. “People will say that it can’t be like that but it has to be. “This isn’t about me, this is about the team and putting the performance we had against Ireland in the Six Nations right.

“Even just to get to play in Chicago in this stadium, it’s unbelievable. Even just to be in that is pretty cool.

“Leinster were over playing in Treviso last weekend so there were a few of them there that I talked to afterwards.

“The majority of the guys I know and would have played with are actually here. So there’s Jack (McGrath), Rhys (Ruddock), Jordi (Murphy) – those sort of lads are all here so it’s nice.”

There have been setbacks of a more orthodox kind along the way, not least when he was omitted from the Italy squad for last season’s Six Nations visit to Dublin but McKinley remains philosophical.

“I think any opportunity that you don’t play, there is going to be disappointment but at the end of the day, like I said at the start, this can’t be an Ian story.

“Maybe whenever I hang up the boots for a second time and you reflect on that. But it just can’t be because I’m here to do a job. We are here to do a job. Romantic stories can be done later on.

“Listen, you have to embrace everything as well. I can’t be robotic about it because that would be incorrect as well but you embrace it, you acknowledge it and hopefully that brings out emotions as well, but you have to make sure that you are in control of them.”

That includes those anthems and he added: “Even in the Six Nations, I was standing on the sideline and the Irish anthem was playing but I only sang the Italian one.

“My loyalty is there for the time being but I don’t give that sort of thing a huge amount of thought. Those emotions come to me as I feel.

“My wife is coming from Italy and then my brother, sister and my mum are coming from Ireland. They are flying in on Saturday, just here for the weekend.

“They are ridiculously loyal, like a good old Irish family. My mum is a real Irish mother. They have been there every step of the way. They have been on the journey as well. They live everything. This for them is like the cherry on top of the cake.

“But they are just happy to see that I am happy and am able to do what I love doing. For them, that’s the biggest thing that gives them joy and they are also able to get trips to Chicago as well.

“Obviously they pay for it but they say ‘We get to travel the world to watch you play so that’s fantastic for us.’”

Another chance to wear the blue jersey on Saturday will mark McKinley’s fourth Test cap as O’Shea’s team open a November schedule that also sees them face potential Six Nations replacements Georgia in a game both nations are desperate to win as the pressure mounts on Italy to prove their worth in the revered championship.

“I suppose exposure and experience is massive. Even just simple things like getting to know the guys, getting to know the bag men, all that sort of stuff makes it easier.

“This trip has been good and obviously there have been a lot of lads who have been left at home but it’s just been good.

“It’s a good group of guys, 25. It’s actually nice in some ways having a small group like that, it makes things easier. It starts with this then Georgia is a must-win. It’s hugely important for us.

“Australia and New Zealand are obviously tough fixtures but you have to play against the best to get up to a certain level. So we’ll see how it goes.”

More in this section

Sport
Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox