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 hugely 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 in 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 stray boot caught him in the face during an AIL 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 Solider Field on Saturday.
“I put a bit of thought into it, I suppose 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 in front of his family when he was overlooked for selection.
In McKinley’s mind, however, there is no room for sentimentality and as such, he has always wanted to be picked on form, regardless of who the opposition are.
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.
“I think any opportunity that you don’t play, there is going to be disappointment but at the end of the day, like I said at the start, 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. Listen, 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 for the game 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 then my brother, sister and my mum are coming from Ireland. They are flying in on Saturday, just here for the weekend.
“They are ridiculously loyal, like a good old Irish family. My mum is a real Irish mother. They have been there every step of the way.
“They have been on the journey as well. They live everything. This, for them, is like the cherry on top of the cake.
“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.
“Listen, 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 actually played an international game now so you realise that these opportunities just don’t come along very often.
“You really have to grab it with two hands, embrace it and see where it goes.”
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