By Ian McKinley
It’s February 2011. I am the Leinster No.10 at the RDS. Ironically enough, Treviso provide the opposition. I’m named man of the match after putting Dave Kearney in for a try and running a line off Dominic Ryan’s break for a score of my own.
We win 30-5. Great memory. First start at home in blue. Pre-match nerves revolved around proving to Joe Schmidt that I could make the step up and run the game.
A few bounces of the ball went my way despite the sight in my left eye being around 70 percent. This was several months after the injury. After the perforated eye ball. It didn’t pop out entirely. Still required a rush to hospital, emergency surgery and some very dark times.
I recovered and returned to rugby, or so it seemed.
This performance seemed like a huge moment in my career until we returned to the changing room. Joe was not happy because we left a bonus point out there. Andrew Conway only crossed for the third try in injury time. Deep into the Six Nations, with Irish internationals away in camp, and our coach is raising his voice about how we failed to attain our goals. The man of the match award is put out of sight as back down to earth we land (I was still very happy with my performance).
Joe, like any coach at the highest level, keeps you on your toes. That’s crucial. I was a sponge to Schmidt’s coaching, and Michael Cheika’s before him, but it wasn’t going to last much longer.
This rugby career was about to crumble around me. Forced retirement, age 21, was imminent.
So much happened before and since that game. For starters, Treviso is my club now. It is also our home. Sono Italiano.
When the accident happened in 2010 I was told, “one year, minimum, away from the game”.
Recovery took six months. My vision progressively improved. 50 percent sight, 70 percent sight, then came complications in the summer of 2011. Cataracts, the clouding of the lens in the eye, leads to decreased and eventually no vision. After so much pressure due to the initial accident, my retina detached entirely.
I am blind but at least the eye was saved.
I’m grateful for the naivety and boldness of a 20-year-old. I viewed what happened as tweaked ligaments. There was a process to get back on the field. I adapted to the situation handed to me. I didn’t over think it. The focus was to not let Ian Madigan disappear too far into the distance as Johnny Sexton’s understudy.
McKinley versus Madigan. St Columba’s outhalf against the Blackrock guy, was never really the way either of us saw the rivalry. I’ve known Ian since we were nine year olds playing Gaelic football for Kilmacud Crokes. Our friendship goes back that far. He was a year ahead of me in school but in the Leinster set-up we were fighting for the same opportunities behind Johnny.
I think we brought the best out in each other. He certainly did for me. The areas he was stronger I’d hone in on improving. Healthy rivalry and genuine respect.
I made my debut for Leinster at 19, one week before the first Heineken Cup final against Leicester, an 18-9 defeat to the Dragons at Rodney Parade at the end of a long hard season for others but me and Kyle Tonetti it provided our first taste of senior rugby.
There were other tough experiences in that environment – we had to grow up pretty quickly – but I look at my era of Ireland under-20s and see enormous progress. Dave Kearney, Jack McGrath, Rhys Ruddock, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Mads and the late Nevin Spence. This was a special group of players.
Having come through the Academy system onto a full contract at one of the best clubs in Europe, I was on the fast track.
The accident happened in a club game. A couple of minutes into UCD against Lansdowne, top of the table clash, I found myself at the bottom of a ruck. Nothing unusual there. I’d contested for the ball, went for a big rip, and landed on my back. A teammate drove over the ball and, by no fault of his, made contact with my face. Specifically, his stud made contact with my eye ball.
The eye didn’t come fully come out of the socket, but it was not where it should have been. When the doctors came on they told me to stay still. Vision in the eye went straight away. Blackness. Rushed to A&E in St Vincent’s hospital, everyone in the waiting room stopped and stared as I entered so it was clear something was seriously wrong.
I looked in a mirror travelling over to the Eye and Ear hospital on Adelaide road. I must have been in shock because it wasn’t a pretty sight but there was no pain. Strange, no physical pain at all.
The real anguish was mental and that didn’t come until I was forced to retire 18 months later. What really hurt was everyone wrongly assumed I was in the clear. Physical problems are manageable but those months after being forced out of rugby were really difficult.
The surgeon and doctors in the Eye and Ear hospital saved the eye. It’s blind but I still have my eye. That any vision began to return, albeit temporarily, was a miracle.
Frustratingly, the doctors stated the danger zone for further problems would be six months. After that I was in the clear. 18 months later my retina detached.
You can’t carry this around. Professionally, I lost three and a half years from a very short career, but other people have not been so lucky after eye injuries.
Not many rugby players come back from a three-year absence. The experience made me stronger. This sounds blunt, but you put the head down and work.
There were other challenges. Two gouging incidents – on my good eye. I don’t like to document these, but they happened. One of them was definitely intentional.
I’d had three surgeries to save my sight and somehow, I got back on the field, and that happened. It certainly irritated my parents.
The cliché that you realise who your real friends are in the darkest days proved true. No way I’d be preparing this week for an international rugby match (against Ireland) if not for certain people picking me off the floor many, many times.
Rugby ended in the summer of 2011 at traffics lights in Galway. I couldn’t differentiate the colours. After rushing straight back to Dublin and into A&E with mum, the detached retina required a fourth operation. They were unable to repair it.
My options weren’t great. Dad simplified the situation: pen and paper, write down positives and negatives. If the negatives outweigh the positives the decision is made for you.
I love rugby. Positive. I was born to play rugby. Positive. There was a vanity aspect – fame, glory, money. Positives.
Implications for my long-term health. Negative. Could I perform anywhere near the same standard with one eye? Negative (initially). My eye was very sore after a year of punishment. Negative.
After a few weeks keeping my own counsel I called up Joe Schmidt to inform him I had to retire.
The Best of TSC
Your life changes. You need extra mirrors to drive a car. Walking into a shopping mall, I’d bump into people. Pouring water into a glass can be tricky due to my depth perception. You can’t focus on 3D films in cinema.
Playing international rugby, so far, I’ve proved it is possible.
But it took a very long time to make that sentence a reality. Coaching became the immediate alternative career. I’ve always loved working with players in their formative years, from 14 to 18, mainly on their fundamentals. Leinster were helpful but, it was frustrating to see former teammates progressing on the pitch. I needed to get away.
When a club in Udine, a small town in north east Italy near the Slovenian border, enquired about a coaching role I was given the chance to head over to see if I liked it.
There was nothing to lose. We, me and my girlfriend who is now my fiancé, took the plunge. Playing rugby seemed finished so I’d learn my trade as a coach.
All my dreams and intended achievements were unattainable. Udine was a lovely change, but I was struggling. I am an extremely ambitious person. That’s how I was capped by Leinster as a teenager. It’s how I earned a full contract at 20.
Retirement is a tough pill to swallow – the reality that rugby is finished, and you have so much more living to do.
My brother, Philip, had other ideas. He helped me get back playing with a set of protective goggles.
World Rugby and a Bologna-based company called Raleri just happened to be the only manufacturers of these goggles. They cover my eye and most importantly they will not cause opponents or teammates any harm and, because of the gouging incident, I wasn’t willing to return to rugby without protection.
In 2014, tentatively at first, I took the field with the team I was coaching. Leonorso are about J4, J5 standard in Ireland (that’s very low) so a professional rugby player, even with one eye, was always going to look good.
It was a trial. I was a guinea pig for the product.
The other test was my mental state. Physically, I knew I’d be just fine.
There was no fear. If that existed, I wouldn’t take the field. The goggles allow me to play with total confidence. There were initial concerns but over 100 games later they still work.
Until Brian O’Driscoll’s laser eye surgery in 2009, he was effectively playing blind, or certainly blurrily, on the pitch. He still managed to captain Ireland to a Grand Slam.
So much of rugby is about trusting your instincts. I feel my way through games, always have. There are disadvantages, which I’ve no intention of telling anybody about, but I’m left footed so that means my style of kicking needed to change. The ball has to be put further out in front before striking but this was about adjusting my body shape.
It’s like a race against my eye, rather than my opponents.
Lots of other things have changed. This is my fourth season back playing professionally. In a rugby context I’m no longer Irish. Sono Italiano. I’m such a different outhalf than the 21-year-old version who played an hour against Treviso at the RDS in 2011. That said, Joe would still find plenty of faults. This may well be examined at Soldier Field next Saturday.
I hope so. Improvement never ends.
It’s important to step back and recognise how far I’ve come. I should do it more often, but professional rugby punishes anyone foolish enough to stand still and admire their achievements. We don’t think like that in Italy or at Benetton Treviso. We’ve made serious improvements but there is so much more to come from both the club and national team before anyone stops to admire my story.
Of course, this week is so unique for my family and friends. I never imagined playing against Ireland, who could have?
Well, actually, I was picturing the opportunity before last year’s Six Nations, until Italian rugby’s most important adopted Irish man disagreed.
Conor O’Shea, as Italy head coach, noted that I was very close to selection, but he couldn’t be swayed by romantic reasons, so Tommaso Allan and Carlo Canna got the nod. That’s how professional rugby works.
It wasn’t difficult to stay positive. Two years before that game I was playing J5 club rugby near the Slovenian border!
This week in Chicago I am on the bench behind Carlo. It will be a strange feeling playing against Ireland, but excitement is the overriding emotion because I’m representing Italy. Also, I like the idea of playing against some of my good mates in a test match. I’ll be ready if that chance arises at the home of the Chicago Bears.
There was never a plan to get back playing for Leinster or Ireland.
It never seemed possible. Initially, three key rugby countries – Ireland, England and France – didn’t sign up to the global trial of my goggles due to insurance concerns. Thankfully that’s since been overturned but I missed out on a few return visits to the RDS. It must be said, I am grateful to the IRFU for changing that decision, and not just for my career but all the other kids who need to wear the goggles.
It was frustrating, after everything I’d come through to get back playing, that I couldn’t return to play rugby in Ireland.
Anyway, I owe Italian rugby my total loyalty. Leonorso gave me a chance to stay involved, Viadana Rugby gave a half blind 24-year-old who had not played for three years a professional contract, Zebre offered me the chance to play at the highest level again and I’ve now signed on for a fourth year with Benetton Treviso. They’ve shown huge confidence in my ability.
I’m very lucky to have two homes.
It’s September 2016. I am the reserve Benetton Treviso outhalf at the RDS. Clearly, Leinster are the opposition. Joey Carbery is the new 10. The standing ovation for my 20-minute cameo will always stay with me and, again, more importantly, my family but I actually prefer last season’s game in Dublin simply because we won. I didn’t come off the bench, who cares, we beat Leinster on their own patch. That’s a huge leap for Italian rugby.
Conor and Steve Aboud have made this such an exciting period. Others, like Michael Bradley at Zebre and Ciaran Crowley at Treviso, are working incredibly hard to close the gap between the top European clubs and tier one nations.
I’m a small part of this, and Treviso provides a fantastic lifestyle for a 28-year-old – the weather’s good, wine even better, and most of all I’m loving my rugby.
For a very long time I never thought I’d think like this ever again.
Subscribe to The Sports Chronicle Podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts.
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
This all began with a contribution from Jamie Heaslip, one of the greatest servants to Irish rugby, with The End is Really The Beginning Part 1 and Part 2.