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Irishman Ian McKinley set for Italy debut seven years after losing sight in left eye

McKinley has been included in the Italy squad for their November Tests. Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

A teammate's stray boot had just perforated Ireland hopeful Ian McKinley's left eyeball in a club rugby game back in January 2010. Despite a deep cut, there was no pain. That would come later. In the face of numerous setbacks, he could have quit, but McKinley's willpower triumphed over each obstacle in his path, and has taken him to the verge of an international debut with Italy.

Surgery and hourly eye drops followed, until six months later he fought back to play professionally again for Leinster. For a year and a half it was positive news, but it didn't last.

The physical nature of the game meant hands made contact with his eye area leading to a couple of gouging incidents, and eventually his retina detached. The final operations that went right into the back of his socket were the most painful. A surgeon told him the tear he had suffered was three times bigger than what could be repaired.

McKinley made "the hardest decision that I've ever had to make" when retiring at 21.

"A lot of sports people want to stop on their own merits," McKinley, now 27, told ESPN after being picked for the Italy squad for the autumn internationals. "If you look at Bjorn Borg, he wanted to stop at 26 and then you have people like Brad Thorn who stop at 41. But at least they get to determine when they stopped. I didn't want to stop at 21."

McKinley is used to beating the odds. Despite playing third-tier Leinster schools rugby for St Columba's College in Dublin he made the Ireland squad for the 2009 Under-20 World Cup in Japan.

On his retirement, then Leinster coach Joe Schmidt commented on McKinley's "strength of character". It was a hammer blow to a youngster but his optimism shows that strength.

"From a professional point of view it was probably the worst thing that could've happened to me," said McKinley. "In the general aspect of the world it is not the worst thing to happen to anyone. I still have vision in my other eye, I still have two functional legs, arms and a brain. I count myself very lucky that I haven't had other injuries.

"If I'm to be honest, when Nevin Spence [a teammate at the U20 World Cup who died in 2012], when his family had that tragedy, that was a big moment, that life is too short. That impacted on me and I know a few of the other guys that it continues to."

Shortly after retiring, a call from former Academy manager Collie McEntee led him to taking a coaching role in Udine, Italy. Here his strength of character would be severely tested.

"When you are talking about the darker period [it was when] my brother was over visiting me. There was a particular Leinster game where they walloped Wasps in the Challenge Cup. I just remember loads of my mates were playing that day.

"I never actually watched rugby when I stopped playing. I didn't watch anything but I would read reports. I just remember reading the report and seeing all the names of the guys I played with and it hit me really, really hard.

"I am always happy to see my mates, who I grew up with do well, but it was really difficult when I wasn't playing. From a selfish point of view, looking at them and their successes, it was quite difficult for me to take. They are doing unbelievably well, with Leinster or Ireland, but I wanted that."

Out of that despair came hope. McKinley's brother Phillip found a student at Ireland's National College of Art and Design, Johnny Merrigan, who helped develop protective goggles. World Rugby and manufacturer Raleri trialled the goggles that became available in January 2014, allowing McKinley to get back playing.

"I am humbled. But the thing I am most happy with is that it is not a sympathy pick."

McKinley on his Italy call up

"It was raining, muddy, guys were smoking before, during and after the game. We won 65-5 and it was a great feeling," said McKinley of his first game back, for Leonorso in March 2014.

The goggles were effective and the experience showed he was "mentally still up for it". Ten games later, an injury crisis at Viadana saw McKinley go from playing "the equivalent of junior five to semi-professional" rugby. He returned to professional rugby first with Zebre in 2015 and then with Treviso a year later.

As he made each step back towards the pro ranks, he needed to alter his game. Not being able to see out of his left eye, sometimes not being able to see the ball, he needed to change the angle of how he kicked and his hand position in catching the ball.

With that in mind seeing an international centre charge at him, as Toulon's Mathieu Bastareaud and Ma'a Nonu did against Treviso lately, might cause some trepidation.

"If I had any fear, I wouldn't go onto the field. Obviously when you play guys with the magnitude of Bastareaud, for example, they're big boys but as a kid you are taught to tackle low. People can't run without their legs. I definitely don't think about that at all.

"I didn't like to be talked about in the past tense, 'that he was a great player' or 'he was a very good player'. People can now go he is getting to a level. I can sleep easier within myself."

Having qualified on residency grounds, he was called up to the provisional Italy squad for the summer Tests but failed to make the final cut. Recent performances, including steering Treviso to within a minute of beating three-time European champions Toulon, helped him make the 31-man squad for upcoming internationals against Fiji, Argentina and South Africa.

"Honoured, thrilled," says McKinley. "My first ever full, senior international call up. How could I not be [thrilled]? I am humbled. But the thing I am most happy with is that it is not a sympathy pick.

"I wanted to be picked on merit. I think people are progressively getting away from that image of Ian as the guy with the goggles. Now it is just Ian McKinley. That has been a big challenge for me but I think people are starting to say that which is good."

Another challenge that could await McKinley is facing his native Ireland in next year's Six Nations and returning to Japan 10 years after his visit with the Irish U20s to play at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. For the moment he is concentrating on repaying the country that introduced the goggles trial when his country of birth would not.

"Italy has given me a new lease of life. It has given me my professional career back. They were the first nation to sign up for the goggles. I can only ever be grateful because they have given me so much.

"It would be amazing to be part of a World Cup because that would be a full 10-years circle on being with the Irish U20s at the World Cup, but again it is such a long way away and this experience has taught me not to think too far ahead."