The visit of Treviso to the RDS this Friday may not make for the most alluring of starts to the new Guinness PRO12 campaign but the presence of Ian McKinley in the Italians’ ranks will at least provide a candidate for feelgood story of the season.
McKinley was just 21, a contemporary of Ian Madigan in the Leinster academy and a man tipped to push Jonathan Sexton for the provincial and national jerseys down the line, when he shipped an accidental boot to the right eye whilst playing for UCD in the AIL.
He recovered enough to play again in the domestic league, and for Leinster, but McKinley had just six appearances bagged with his home province before his vision deteriorated to such an extent that he had no option but to call time on his career.
Only the patenting of a set of plastic goggles has allowed him to resurrect his dreams and so it is that a route back that started with Leonorso in the Italian third tier, continued with Viadana and, last season, Zebre now takes him back to his home city with Treviso.
“Ian is a special kid,” said Leinster coach Leo Cullen. “Really special. When he was here with the academy, I was still playing at that stage. There was just something very special about his personality. I’d say it was hard for him to process at the time.
“But he has gone away, started doing a bit of coaching and back playing, to the stage where he is now a contracted player with Treviso. It’s an amazing story, really, but it just shows the drive and determination the guy has. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
McKinley may not start. The expectation is that Italy out-half Tommaso Allan will wear the No. 10 shirt but even the sight of McKinley on the bench in Ballsbridge will be cause for celebration after his remarkable comeback from an horrific eye injury.
“I played all the way up with Ian,” said Leinster’s Noel Reid.
“He was a good pal. He’s a really talented player and it’s great to see him back. He’s got a good all-round game, his kicking’s really good, a nice left boot. He’s pretty attacking himself too, with a strong attacking mindset.
“He throws it around, he’s quick. He’ll be good for them. He’s a general of a 10, he controls teams, he’s done that from a young age. I was in the academy when he was injured, it was obviously tough for him but it’s great to see him back now.”
Leinster welcome Treviso shorn of the usual bunch of bodies. Those who toured South Africa with Ireland are still a week or more away from active duties though Cian Healy, Rob Kearney and Mike McCarthy are all available this week after their returns from injuries suffered last term.
So many others remain longer-term projects.
Jack Conan is facing eight weeks out having required ankle surgery recently, Richardt Strauss needs four weeks after an operation on his knee and Rhys Ruddock will require something similar as he continues his recovery from ankle trouble.
Jonathan Sexton is still rehabbing his shoulder and won’t be seen for a few weeks yet, Isa Nacewa continues to manage his back problem and Robbie Henshaw is months away from his debut after knee surgery.
All in all, Leinster have 13 players unavailable with injury before the season starts.
Not exactly a clean slate.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved