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I'll keep my emotions in check, says McKinley

 

By Cian Tracey

Standing in a hallway of Italy's plush hotel in downtown Chicago, Ian McKinley laughs when he is asked by an American television crew member if he speaks good English.

"I should hope so, I'm Irish," the Dubliner laughs.

As he settles into a chair in a quieter corner, you can sense McKinley's comfort at hearing some Irish accents.

The Ian McKinley that we find now is very similar to the one who was breaking through at Leinster with an exciting reputation.

Confident, assured and relaxed, McKinley's story is now one which has moved past 'the goggle guy'.

One by one his Italian team-mates filter through the hallway and the jovial remarks that are passed suggest that McKinley is a popular figure within the squad.

Then again, how could he not be? Anyone who has been through what he has been through commands the respect of those he comes into contact with. Yet the reason McKinley finds himself in the international fold is purely based on merit, not for any sentimental reasons.

It's eight years since McKinley was blinded in his left eye after a boot caught him in the face in an All-Ireland League game with UCD.

Premature retirement followed before the 28-year old resurrected his career in stunning fashion, and he is now on the verge of playing against Ireland at Soldier Field on Saturday.

"I put a bit of thought into it, the biggest thing is to just take it as another game," McKinley insists. "People will say that it can't be like that but it has to be. This isn't about me, this is about the team and putting the performance we had against Ireland in the Six Nations right."

Having made his Italy debut last November after qualifying via the three-year residency rule, McKinley's progress has been hampered by injury.

He was included in the Azzurri's Six Nations squad but missed out on a dream day at the Aviva Stadium in front of his family when he was overlooked.

In McKinley's mind, however, there is no room for sentimentality and, as such, he has always wanted to be picked on form, regardless the opposition.

This weekend will be different however, as Conor O'Shea has selected the out-half, who can play across the backline, on the bench against his home country.

"Any opportunity that you don't play, there is going to be disappointment, but this can't be an Ian story," McKinley continues.

"Maybe whenever I hang up the boots for a second time you reflect on that. But it just can't be because I'm here to do a job. We are here to do a job. Romantic stories can be done later on. You have to embrace everything as well.

"I can't be robotic about it because that would be incorrect as well, but you embrace it, you acknowledge it and hopefully that brings out emotions as well, but you have to make sure that you are in control of them.

"Even in the Six Nations, I was standing on the sideline and the Irish anthem was playing but I only sang the Italian one. My loyalty is there for the time being but I don't give that sort of thing a huge amount of thought. Those emotions come to me as I feel."

McKinley's family are due to arrive in the Windy City and, having been with him through the good and bad times, it promises to be an emotional occasion for them.

"My wife is coming from Italy and my brother, sister and my mum are coming from Ireland. They are flying in on Saturday, just here for the weekend," he said.

"They are ridiculously loyal, like a good old Irish family. My mum is a real Irish mother. They have been there every step.

"They have been on the journey as well. They live everything. This, for them, is like the cherry on top.

"They are just happy to see that I am happy and am able to do what I love doing. That's the biggest thing that gives them joy, and they are also able to get trips to Chicago as well!"

Italian rugby is on the up under the guidance of O'Shea, and McKinley has been there from the start.

Like Ireland, Italy face a big month - not least next weekend's clash against Georgia.

McKinley has had to bide his time since winning the last of his three caps last November, yet if his inspiring journey has taught him anything, it is the importance of making the most of every opportunity, because you don't know what is around the corner.

"Since the Six Nations I've had a frustrating time, a couple of injuries set me back. In terms of minutes, I haven't played a lot," he adds. "I am as prepared as I could be for this game. Mentally I am in a good place.

"It's been a year since I have played an international game so you realise that these opportunities don't come along very often.

"You really have to grab it with two hands, embrace it and see where it goes."

• Wales' record cap holder Gethin Jenkins says he is "very proud of everything I have achieved" as he prepares to retire from rugby.

The 37-year old prop and former Wales captain will call time on his career after featuring in Cardiff Blues' Guinness PRO14 clash against Zebre on Sunday.

"I have been working hard rehabbing over the last three months, and I was confident I was going to be back playing, so it's disappointing to be retiring after Sunday's game against Zebre," he said.

"It's obviously a big decision, but I've had a good innings, it's time to finish and I am looking forward to one more run-out at the weekend and hopefully finishing on a high.

"The pain I have been experiencing from rugby in my daily life simply isn't tolerable, but it is important to me that after all the work I have put in, I run out with my team one last time and finish on my own terms.

"I'm very proud of everything I have achieved. I have so many memories and could stay all day listing them, but the biggest thing I will miss is that camaraderie with the boys, the buzz of running out and playing, and the feeling in the changing rooms after a win."

Ireland vs Italy

Autumn Internationals

Soldier Field, Saturday, 8.00pm

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