When a metal stud punctured Ian McKinley’s left eyeball on the rugby field eight years ago his life’s journey switched paths immediately.
Playing for Ireland’s University College Dublin against Lansdowne as a 20-year-old on the books at Leinster, McKinley’s world was permanently altered at the bottom of a ruck.
Only when hearing his full story do you appreciate how extraordinary it will be if the fly-half, now 28, makes his NatWest 6 Nations debut for Italy against England on Sunday.
Ian McKinley, who is blind in one eye, in action against Fiji for Italy last year on his debut
A metal stud punctured Ian McKinley’s left eyeball during a game eight years ago. He is pictured in action for his club Treviso in 2016
McKinley’s official Italy squad photograph for the 2018 Six Nations
In January 2010, Dublin-born McKinley was grappling for the ball when it happened.
‘That split second I was on my back someone came into the ruck and stood on my eye,’ he said.
‘The stud went into my left eye, pushed it out a little bit and perforated the eyeball. My vision went black straightaway. I stood up and started swinging because I thought it was a deliberate act.’
There was no foul play, the foot belonged to a team-mate.
A fractured cheekbone was feared. In reality it was much worse. At Dublin’s Royal Victoria Ear & Eye Hospital, a trainee doctor could not diagnose the problem so a top specialist was summoned.
Unable to play with sight in just on eye, McKinley had retired at 21 after his other was gouged
Four hours later, McKinley came round from a gruesome operation to be told he should not exercise — let alone play rugby — for a year.
Remarkably, after six months, he had returned to the game and even signed a new contract with Leinster where Ireland’s current coach Joe Schmidt had just started.
By May 2011 though, with 70 per cent of his vision restored, events took another, sinister turn. Fifteen minutes into Leinster ‘A’ versus Ireland U20s, the day after the province had beaten Northampton to lift the European Cup, McKinley’s sight blurred severely.
‘I had just scored a try and went to kick for the posts and thought there wasn’t something right here,’ he added. ‘I went off and it turned out I had developed a cataract in my eye.’
Combining efforts saw a set of protective goggle patented for McKinley’s use in matches
Due to the complications of his original injury, he now required two more one-and-a-half-hour stints under the knife — they just about worked initially.
Then a frightening development. On a trip to Galway with friends later that year, McKinley suddenly realised he could not distinguish the traffic-light colours. Doctors confirmed he had detached his retina. ‘They told me the tear had been three times bigger than what they could fix,’ he said.
‘They likened it to a clock. If you go from 12 o’clock ’til three, they can repair that amount of damage, but mine was 12 ’til eight. They said that unfortunately my vision was gone and they could not do anything.’
Two weeks later McKinley had retired, aged 21. What makes this tale more harrowing is one of the reasons he felt he had to quit.
Naturally playing rugby with effectively one eye did not seem achievable. But McKinley feels compelled to mention an uglier point — that on his return from the initial injury he was gouged a couple of times in his good eye.
As a Treviso playmaker and Italian qualified, McKinley made his Test debut in the win over Fiji
That abhorrent fact meant he never intended to play rugby again, until a conversation with his brother in 2013.
‘He saw I was happy in my job coaching kids and that things were going well but that there was still a degree of regret,’ said McKinley, who had moved to Italy with his girlfriend a year earlier.
Could they find an invention to reignite his career? Combining the efforts of the National College of Art & Design in Dublin, the game’s governing body World Rugby and a Bologna-based company called Raleri, a set of protective eyewear was patented for his use. The pair of goggles opened new doors.
The astonishing comeback began in Italy’s lowest tier, at Leonorso. He then moved to Viadana, his eyes protected and game blossoming. At Zebre in 2015 he hit the headlines, cruelly denied the chance to face Connacht in Ireland, as the unions of Ireland, England and France had not approved the trial of his goggles.
He now has ambitions of making Conor O’Shea’s squad against England in Rome on Sunday
Italy were the trailblazers — now all nations approve the equipment — so he owes a rugby life to his adopted nation. Last autumn, as a Treviso playmaker and Italian qualified on residency, McKinley made his Test debut in the Azzurri win against Fiji.
‘It was very emotional singing the national anthem when you have got your whole family there with tears running down their cheeks,’ he said. But how on earth does he play to this level with one eye? The goggles are purely protective, McKinley ruling out the one per cent chance that some sickening opponent gouges him again.
He often cannot see the ball when he kicks but, while he relies a lot on his team-mates he is not searching for sympathy. ‘There is a huge amount of trust,’ he said.
‘You need the person to the left and the right of you to do their jobs so you can do yours. I just want to be like anyone else — if you do something well you are praised, if you do something wrong you are criticised.’
McKinley receives bundles of social media messages and tributes and the publicity will only intensify ahead of Sunday.
‘The beauty of professional sport is that the journey never seems to come to an end,’ he said. ‘It is good for the soul.’