THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from Ian McKinley: Second Sight: Rugby and Redemption.
Sunday, March 2nd, 2014
FOR MOST people, that will be a day of little to no significance — just another day in the calendar — but to me, it is one of the most important days of my life.
It was the day I made my return to the rugby pitch after an absence of 33 months and 11 days.
The senior Leonorso XV played in the Serie C Regional division (the lowest one) and we were due to play a team called Oderzo, who had beaten us in a previous round. There had been a massive fight during that game so there was a fair amount of bad blood.
Mum flew over a couple of days beforehand for the big day. She was there to support me like she did for all my games. On the Saturday, the day before, I went with Mum to a Leonorso Under-18s match and it was lovely having people coming up to us after the game wishing us the best the next day. You could really sense that people were excited for me.
That night Mum and myself just went to a local pizzeria for dinner, and I went to bed early. I had so many things going through my head whilst lying in bed, but I felt compelled to write to Philip. In an email, I basically thanked him for all this. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be having those nervous butterflies in my belly which I missed so much. Life had more than a purpose again!
I woke up and went to the club early for a mini rugby tournament in the morning, but I told Mum I would be back to pick her up for the game. This certainly wasn’t my normal routine for a game in years gone by, but I had to work.
I went back to my apartment and had lunch, packed my bag with the addition of a pair of goggles and drove to the home ground with Mum. The previous day and night, it had rained so much that Mum thought they were going to call off the game.
Rugby pitches are usually not fantastically drained in Italy but thankfully our pitch had enough grass areas on it for the match to go ahead.
I arrived at our home ground again. The famous “terzo tempo” of Italian rugby — food and wine post-game — was still going on from the mini-rugby tournament so there were still plenty of people in the ground. Considering the gloomy weather, the atmosphere was brilliant. I went to the changing room, placed my bag there and went back out for a quick scan of the pitch.
As I was doing that, I saw the other players coming to the game. I knew what the level was like as I had been training with this team for the best part of six months but when you see opposition players coming to the ground with cigarettes in one hand and a McDonald’s in the other, it is hard to stay focused .
The game kicked off at 3pm so I went out to kick at 2pm, which had always been my normal routine. I put on the black and white socks along with my newly bought pair of adidas Predators. I ran and passed a bit to get warmed up and did some place kicking. The pitch was indescribably bad, but I was striking the ball well in the warm-up.
I distinctly remember practicing my place-kicking from various different spots and after landing several kicks from the halfway line and the touchline, I could hear a group of Oderzo fans stood behind me whispering, “Oh merda” between themselves, as if they knew it was going to be a long day.
We finished the warm-up as a team and headed back into the changing room for some last-minute instructions. I put on my headphones and listened to some pump-up music, a bit old school I know. Mentally I was ready for this game but there were still question marks as to how the goggles would work in a game.
When we emerged from the changing room, there were the kids from mini rugby cheering us on and each home player ran onto the field, hand in hand, with one of those players. There were a couple of Italian rugby traditions to go through before the game.
One, the ball would start in the hands of the home captain and be passed alternatively between both teams as we ran on.
The second would happen on the halfway line where both teams lined up, akin to national anthems, and saluted the opposition by stamping your foot on the ground (a ‘hip hip hooray’ thing).
Pre-match routines observed, it was time for the kick-off. The whistle went and their out-half struggled to get a bounce for the kick-off because the pitch was so saturated. It was great to get a few early touches and test the goggles in a game-like environment.
But the second time I took the ball into contact the goggles slipped down my face and covered my chin. I quickly took my scrum cap off and put them back in the right place, making sure they were tighter. We won 65-5. As a debut, I couldn’t have asked for more in terms of how I was feeling, both mentally and physically.
I also managed to score 28 points but ultimately it was just great to have my knees covered in mud again, my lungs burning, and feeling part of a team.
When the game was over, we congratulated each other. I saw Mum and just gave her a big hug. With a camcorder in one hand, she hugged me with the other and we both started crying.
Mum was struggling to talk and just said: “Oh Eenie.” This was a throwback to my childhood nickname of ‘Eenie Weenie’ as I was the youngest and it was probably an indicator as well of just how anxious she’d been leading up to the game and during it.
For me personally, I was just so happy to be back and for the game to have gone so well. I knew I could push my level of performance with these goggles but it would require time to get used to them.
What happens when they fog up? If it rains? If there’s a long passage of play? Or they fall off? Amid all these thoughts, I wondered what areas could I focus on to make these goggles benefit me, and not hinder me?
But these considerations could wait until after a few beers in the changing room and then we would always head to a restaurant for a feed after the game. So I went with the team and Mum came along too.
I sent feedback about the goggles via World Rugby’s player welfare page after every game. I would find out various things about them after every use. The most common things to fix were the fogging up and scratching on the goggle lenses.
I was given a pair of tinted goggles to trial which helped in sunlight. They were completely black to look at, but it was like wearing a pair of sunglasses while playing.
I later found out that they didn’t fall under the trial umbrella, so I was not permitted to wear them as they were deemed to give me an advantage over other players on a sunny day! Heaven forbid I’d have an advantage with my one eye!
We reached the play-offs to get into Serie B, but we lost our last game to miss out by one point. It was a blessing in disguise though as the club was losing a lot of the better players due to work, relocation, or retirement.
I played ten games in total for Leonorso and the level was equivalent to J3/J4 club rugby in Ireland. On our team, we had a variety of people, from a Moldovan international prop, a butcher who mainly spoke Friulan (a language spoken solely in that region), a Sicilian student who didn’t know the rules of rugby, and a few Argentinians .
At times it didn’t feel like real rugby as I could go through a whole game without tackling one player or hitting one ruck. But it provided me with the opportunity to see if I still had the drive to go ahead with this. And I never hesitated about that for a moment.
In order to truly restart my rugby-playing career I needed to do a few things. One was to be excused from the last year in my contract with Leonorso and two was to find myself an agent to secure a team to play with for the following year.
Massimo Rizzi, my boss, readily agreed to release me from my last year with Leonorso and helped me find an agent.
I met a few feeder clubs for teams that played in the Eccellenza, which was the highest level of club rugby in Italy.
I had offers from Serie A with the idea of me being a player/coach for one of their clubs, and I was pitched the alternative idea of training one or two days with the Eccellenza team and then playing for the Serie A team. I didn’t like these proposals at all.
One day, I received a call from CUS Torino which was a Serie A team based in Turin, 5.5 hours drive from Udine. They were looking for a player/coach for their first team. Again, it didn’t really interest me, but their head coach was heading to a club in the Eccellenza, and I thought this could be my opportunity in case they were short of out-halves.
The coach was hosting a training session for those interested in playing for CUS Torino. The training was at about 6pm so I set off from Udine at 11am.
I arrived at the ground in my club car where there were some of the current CUS team training in the gym.
I met the coach, Regan Sue from New Zealand, and he explained to me and one other player what we were going to be doing. There would be three tests: on-field skill, fitness and a gym test.
I started on the pitch with passing and kicking. Regan said that my weak foot was better than the good foot of their current out-half. We then did a tackling grid where I was essentially tackling for two minutes straight.
I didn’t have my goggles with me as I was assured that there was no contact, but they brought out one of their props to run against me and Regan said: “Now I know you normally use goggles when tackling so we don’t have to do this.”
I didn’t want the goggles to be an issue, so I just tackled away without them. I made all my tackles without the scrum cap and goggles.
The session lasted about 90 minutes in total, and I was wrecked. It felt like we did a whole pre-season in that time. The other player doing it was a young kid from San Dona, which is a town on the way back towards Udine. I was asked to drop him home, so we left quickly.
We just stopped getting some fuel. I grabbed some snacks at the service station as I was starving. I didn’t have a massive lunch on the way down either, but this was bad preparation on my part.
Once I dropped off the other player and I still had about another 90 minutes on the motorway back to Udine. I was shattered at this stage and the next thing I know I had woven off the middle of the motorway and towards the guardrail.
I clipped the right side of the car, spun around a couple of times back on the main part of the road and then hit the guardrail, this time head on.
It really felt like my life did flash before my eyes. This all happened at about 130km. It was midnight so thankfully there wasn’t too much traffic or else it could have been much worse.
I opened my eyes to my hands on the steering wheel, airbag out, expecting to feel some pain. I felt fine.
I got out of the car, and I was pretty lucky. The whole front left side had been smashed in which is the driver’s side. People stopped to see if I was okay, and the police arrived. I called a few people, but the majority were asleep, but I eventually got through to Giorgio Leone, Leonorso’s club president and he came and picked me up.
The car was a complete write-off. It wasn’t my finest hour but luckily no one was hurt and a couple of days later I received a call to say that a team in the Eccellenza, the top tier in Italian club rugby, wanted to meet up and have a chat.
That team was Rugby Viadana and that trial led to me being signed by them for the 2014-15 season. The coach had seen enough. All for a modest €20k per year contract. But the trip had paid off!
Ian McKinley: Second Sight: Rugby and Redemption is published by Reach Sport. More info here.