‘Cigarettes in one hand…McDonald’s in the other’: how Italian rugby made Ian McKinley


“I saw the players come to the game. I knew the level because I had been training with this team for almost six months, but when you see the opposing players come to the ground with cigarettes in their hands and a McDonald’s in the ‘other, it’s hard to stay focused.”

Ian McKinley, Second Sight: Rugby and redemption, my story.

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

Once a promising member of one of the world’s most elite rugby teams in Leinster, he was now having fun with amateurs, some of whom McKinley said didn’t even know the rules of the game.

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

He ended that momentous occasion with a 65-5 victory and 28 points for himself. Not bad for his first game 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 half-back to retire from rugby, before his work to get ground-breaking gaming glasses made and approved saw him return. in the game.

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 the Heineken Cup final to amateur rugby

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

The last match before 2014 that he appeared in was one of the most famous matches 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 larger team that traveled. When we spoke to him, the striking juxtaposition between this game and the next was a comparison that does justice to his unique and gripping rugby journey.

“My last memory of rugby, before the glasses, was the 2011 Heineken Cup Final when Johnny took that inspirational win against Northampton. And I didn’t play but was on the away team. You’re so on the field with the trophy.

“So you go from that image to your first game in front like a man and a dog, on an Italian pitch that didn’t necessarily have a lot of grass on it, the players were all out of shape, it was kind of a stark contrast of 80,000 people in a stadium.”

The standard, in Irish terms, was “essentially J5”, or very low in the Dublin Metropolitan leagues.

I asked Ian if he ‘peed’ the whole competition, or if he was nervous in any way, and I was given a thoughtful and mature answer.

“I think if you were nervous, I shouldn’t have done it. I literally went there with no nervous energy or anything like that. It was more determined to make sure these things were going to work.

“Did I piss on it? No. Because one, what’s the point almost? True, the first game I scored 28 points, what you could do is fine, but the norm is obviously what it was and it was good to get a few tries, but I think in the ten games I played I got something like five tries.

“It was nothing too major, but it was very different, very unstructured, and if you looked either way you never knew who was next to you or not.”

Italian redemption

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

That day in March marked what was essentially his third appearance in rugby – he had already returned once after the initial eye injury – and led to an unexpectedly film-like story, culminating in the achievement of a life goal of playing. international rugby.

After 10 games for the local Udine, Viadana – who played in the Italian equivalent of AIL – came calling, then Zebre, Treviso and finally Italy head coach Conor O’Shea.

After retiring from Leinster, McKinley had spent years watching his former peers play out their rugby life, without him by their side, but his brave adventure in Italy gave him a career that surpassed many of theirs.

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

McKinley on Frawley

Now happily retired for good and coach of Rainey Old Boys in AIL 2B, it seems like the time has come to get his take on Ireland’s current outhalves, and whoever he thinks is playing the more like him.

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

“I really like the way he plays the game, but they’re all good, very accomplished players, and Joey has obviously been very unhappy 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 obviously they’re giving Frawley the green light, but it just depends on whether he gets playing time, that’s the key question.”

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