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Determined McKinley is breaking down rugby barriers

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 09/04/2016

Inspiration: Ian McKinley is trialling protective goggles for World Rugby
Inspiration: Ian McKinley is trialling protective goggles for World Rugby
Ian McKinley with Ryan

Visiting substitutes to the Kingspan Stadium will rarely garner more than a footnote in any Ulster match report but for Coleraine boy Ryan Totten, it was a wholly different and hugely inspiring story last month.

The tale of Ian McKinley has become prominent over the last year but the Dubliner's introduction at the halfway point of Zebre's trip to Belfast five weeks ago seemed to offer the start of a new chapter.

Having lost sight in his left eye after catching the stud of a UCD team-mate six years ago, his career was in the balance.

After battling on in the hope of fulfilling the promise that had many believing he would by now be the one applying pressure to Jonathan Sexton for both the Leinster and Ireland No.10 jerseys, he ultimately had to give up the game he loved when two attempted eye gouges in the club game left him fearing he could lose his sight entirely.

McKinley, however, found walking away was not that simple. Wearing protective goggles manufactured by Raleri, he returned to action in the unusual setting of the Italian amateur scene looking, as he jokes, like a 1940s fighter pilot.

As a former professional his talent was evident from the outset and, following 28 points on his debut for Leonorso, he was soon climbing up the ladder and signing professional terms with Viadana.

His performances for the club located some 75 miles south-east of Milan piqued the interest of PRO12 outfit Zebre but there remained one glaring problem - his goggles.

Being trialled by World Rugby but still not accepted by some unions, McKinley couldn't represent the Parma-based side during games played in Ireland, England or France and in October 2015 was notified in writing by the IRFU that he would not be permitted to take part in a visit to Connacht.

Speaking out at the time against what he viewed as a denial of his livelihood, an online petition reached over 13,000 signatures before Irish rugby joined up to the trial in December.

Sat in his Parma home, McKinley recalls the moment he heard the news: "When you work so hard at something and then to be suddenly told that it's all paid off, there's just a shock. We were thrilled.

"Everyone's work, everyone at home and all the stories you hear, you look at the significance and we were thrilled.

"It means that people can fulfil their chosen profession but it's even better that young kids can experience the sport no matter what limitations they have.

"Rugby is a sport for all shapes and sizes, and it was a shame the way it was. I'm just thankful now that the decision came through that everyone can participate."

Having overcome all the obstacles, his outing off the bench in Belfast last month gave McKinley his first appearance on these shores for five years.

While his side lost 32-0, they improved markedly after McKinley's half-time introduction, not that you'd know it from his memories of the game.

"I wasn't happy because we lost," he recounts simply. "From a professional point of view, we lost and lost badly."

Still, as he left the Kingspan surrounded by family and after most others had departed, he cut the air of a satisfied man.

"Taking it all into consideration, it was a game I'll look back on with great fondness," he said. "At the time you're just concentrating on doing your role, getting your pieces right, but in the future I'll look back.

"It was great for my family to see me play in Ireland after all this."

A nice moment too for Ryan Totten who received his first pair of McKinley-style Raleri goggles on Wednesday of this week.

The eight-year-old hit the headlines a year ago when told he could not participate in a mini-rugby tournament because of the IRFU's stance on eyewear in the full-contact game.

At the time he was left embarrassed and upset, the exclusion from friends he had played tag-rugby alongside at Coleraine RFC for three years naturally difficult to comprehend. However, with some support from McKinley, he soldiered on this season and refused to abandon the sport.

Unfortunately, as his mother Christine notes, "the poor boy can't see a thing" without the benefit of his prescription due to natural but severe long sightedness.

While the sight of former prop Tom Court scrambling for a lost contact lens was familiar to Ulster fans for years, Ryan was never comfortable with such an alternative leaving him unable to focus on the play right in front of him.

That will all change when the DH Memorial pupil next takes to the field.

Three months on from applying to be part of the trial, and with Belfast optician Richard Sweeney able to provide the prescription lenses and adapt the goggles, the game is set to become much clearer for young Ryan.

Mother Christine says: "He was playing last week and I felt sorry for him. He's so long sighted, he just can't see what's in front of him on the field.

"Hopefully now this will have him equipped better. It takes a while to get them sorted because of the prescription lenses. The whole process was quite convoluted. You have to apply to be accepted onto on the trial.

"Now, I don't imagine anyone gets told no but you have to apply online from the IRFU then go through Raleri.

"They manufacture the goggles and, obviously being in Italy, it can be quite slow. It was probably three months.

"He just can't wait to get out there and try them now."

When he does so, he can dream of emulating McKinley, a player who Christine says has provided inspiration for her young son.

"Ian's a great role model. He's one heck of a player even with sight in just one eyes," she added. "It was great for Ryan to see him (against Ulster) and the more kids that see someone like him playing at that level, the more normal the goggles are going to seem.

"At the minute, it's trying to spread the word because there's so many people who wouldn't be aware this is something that's available.

"How many kids are there out there like Ryan?

"It's not just rugby; this will come into play with Gaelic sports as well. It's a really positive thing."

The future is exciting for McKinley too.

Aiming to provide Viadana with their first silverware in three years today when his side meet Petrarca Padova for the Trofeo Eccellenza, he wants to be known for his rugby talent, not as flag bearer for a cause.

"It's very important now that I wear these goggles, and that there will be other children wearing them, but you want to be perceived for what you are on the field," he concludes. "You want to be a player who just happens to be wearing the goggles, not someone who is known for it."

In the years to come, thanks to hard work, the likes of Ryan Totten and those wearing what should become commonplace eye-wear will be looked upon as just that.

Belfast Telegraph

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