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'Cigarettes In One Hand...McDonald's In The Other': How Italian Rugby Made Ian McKinley

'Cigarettes In One Hand...McDonald's In The Other': How Italian Rugby Made Ian McKinley
By Colman Stanley Updated
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"I saw the players coming to the game. I knew what the level was like as I had been training with this team for the best part of six months but when you see the opposition players coming to the ground with cigarettes in one hand and a McDonald's in the other, it is hard to stay focused."

Ian McKinley, Second Sight: Rugby & Redemption, My Story.

These are the depths at which Ian McKinley found himself playing at on the 2nd of March in 2014, for lowly Italian side Leonorso Rugby Udine.

Once a promising member of one of the most elite rugby set-ups in the world at Leinster, he was now mucking it about with amateurs, some of whom, according to McKinley, did not even know the rules of the game.

However, that day in March was powerful catalyst for a rugby career so unlikely and moving that it spawned a Netflix documentary, and his recently released book, which he has written with Gerry Thornley.

He finished this momentous occasion with a 65-5 win and 28 points for himself. Not half bad for his first match in over three years.

Many of us are already aware of McKinley's journey. In short, a devastating injury left him blind in one eye, and forced the promising 21-year-old outhalf into retirement from rugby, before his work to get groundbreaking playing goggles made and approved, gave him a way back into the game.

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Incredibly, McKinley would play against Ireland ahead of the 2019 World Cup at the Aviva Stadium.

Less is known about McKinley's journey through Italy.

From A Heineken Cup Final To Amateur Rugby

25 February 2011; Ian McKinley, Leinster, in action against Ludovico Nitoglia, Benetton Treviso. Celtic League, Leinster v Benetton Treviso, RDS, Ballsbridge, Dublin. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

The last match before 2014 that he had been involved in was one of the most celebrated games in Irish rugby history; the 2011 Heineken Cup final, 'The Sexton Final', when Leinster completed their miraculous comeback against Northampton at the Millennium Stadium.

McKinley did not play, but was part of the wider squad that travelled. When we spoke to him, the stark juxtaposition between that game and his next one was a comparison which does fitting justice to his unique and captivating rugby journey.

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"My last rugby memory, pre-goggles, was the 2011 Heineken cup final, when Johnny had that inspiring win against Northampton. And I didn't play but I was part of the external squad. So you're on the pitch with the trophy.

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"So you go from that image to then your first game in front of like a man and a dog, on an Italian pitch that didn't necessarily have much grass on it, players were all out of shape, was sort of a stark contrast from 80,000 people in a stadium."

The standard, in Irish terms, was "essentially J5", or way down in the Dublin Metro Leagues.

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I asked Ian did he 'piss' all over the competition, or was he nervous in any way, and a thoughtful and mature answer was provided.

"I think if you were nervous then I shouldn't have been doing it. I literally went into it with no nervous energy or anything like that. It was more determination to make sure these things were going to work.

"Did I piss on it? No. Because one, what's the point almost? Granted the first game I scored 28 points, which you might go is good, but the standard is obviously was what it was and it was nice to get a few tries, but I think in the ten games I played I got something like five tries.

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"It was nothing too major, but it was very different, very unstructured, and if you looked either side you never knew who was beside you or not."

Italian Redemption

10 August 2019; Ian McKinley of Italy during the Guinness Summer Series 2019 match between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

That day in March marked what was essentially his third go at rugby - he had already made it back once after the initial eye injury - and lead to a film-like against-the-odds story, which culminated in achieving a life goal of playing international rugby.

After 10 games for local Udine, Viadana - who played in Italy's equivalent of the AIL - came calling, then Zebre, Treviso, and eventually the head coach of Italy, Conor O'Shea.

After his retirement from Leinster, McKinley had spent years watching his former peers play out their rugby lives, without him by their side, but his brave venture to Italy gave him a career which surpassed many of theirs.

The level of peace of mind that must bring him, given what he has been through, is indescribable.

McKinley On Frawley

Now happily retired for good, and coaching Rainey Old Boys in AIL 2B, it feels like an appropriate time to get his take on Ireland's current outhalves, and which one he thinks plays most like himself.

"Good question. I'm probably if I'm to liken myself to one of them, it's probably Ciarán Frawley because he plays different positions. And I know I was able to play 10, 12, 13, for the Irish U20s, and 15. So it can be a good thing and a bad thing.

"I really like the way he plays the game, but they're all very accomplished good players, and Joey's obviously been very unfortunate with injuries and that sort of thing. But it'll be interesting to see what they do, they've named Sexton , Carbery, and Frawley, so they're obviously giving Frawley the nod but it just depends if he gets game time, that's the key question."

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