Irish rugby player battles to play on home soil over eyewear spat
Ian McKinley is currently prevented from playing in Ireland due to IRFU’s non-participation in World Rugby protective eyewear trial.
An Irish rugby player, who is competing at the most elite levels of the sport, has launched a campaign calling on the IRFU and World Rugby to facilitate his participation in fixtures on Irish soil.
Ian McKinley, a 25-year-old former Leinster out-half, is currently prevented from playing in Ireland because he needs to wear protective goggles during games after he sustained an injury which robbed him of his sight in one eye while playing the sport.
A trial of the goggles was sanctioned by World Rugby in January 2014, but the IRFU has declined to participate, effectively blocking rugby players that require the goggles from playing in Ireland.
Although 24 rugby unions internationally are participating in the trial, including seven of the top 10 ranked nations in the world, only the Irish, English and French unions have declined to participate.
McKinley was called up to the Zebre squad last month, having been signed to Viadana, one of the biggest sides in the Italian league, since August 2014.
He played for Zebre against Llanelli Scarlets in the Pro12 competition in Italy in recent weeks, but missed his team’s last fixture away to Connacht, because he cannot even participate in Ireland.
McKinley said he believes his rights under the Irish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights are being breached because of the position adopted by the IRFU and the lack of action on the part of World Rugby.
“I received a letter from the IRFU last week, saying they could not permit me to play against Connacht if I wear the protective goggles,” explained McKinley. “They had sought World Rugby’s advice, and were told a player from a participating union may not wear goggles while playing in the jurisdiction of a union that is not participating in the trial.
“So I am now faced with a ludicrous situation, whereby the IRFU will allow me to play if I do not wear the goggles, but they will not permit me to play if I wear this essential piece of protective gear.”
McKinley himself played a central role in developing the pioneering goggles, after losing the sight in his left eye during a rugby match in 2010. At the time, he was playing professional rugby with Leinster, and had 11 caps for Ireland at under-19 and under-20 age-levels.
“I lost my eye when a team-mate accidentally put his stud in it during a ruck, causing a full rupture,” said McKinley. “I was determined to stay playing despite my injury, and I continued with Leinster for a further 18 months. However, during that time, my good eye was deliberately gouged during two All-Ireland League matches.
“I had to face up to the reality that I could end up blind if I continued to play without protective eyewear. So I made the excruciating decision to quit the game I loved at the age of 21.”
McKinley subsequently worked with designers on the Masters in Medical Device Design programme at NCAD to find a solution that would enable him to continue playing rugby. The protective goggles that were developed as a result are now being manufactured by Italian firm Raleri and used by 525 players worldwide.
“When World Rugby agreed to conduct a trial of the goggles back in January 2014, I felt like I had been handed a lifeline,” said McKinley. “This has enabled me to return to playing professionally because, wearing the goggles, I know my good eye is protected.
“However, it is heart-breaking that I am not currently allowed to play in my own home country. Over the past two years, myself and others in similar situations have been in ongoing contact with World Rugby and the IRFU to see if we can resolve this situation once and for all. I feel strongly that the restrictions being placed on me are in breach of anti-discrimination legislation here in Ireland, as well as EU laws on workers’ mobility.
“Unfortunately, I feel I now have no option but to engage in a public campaign to highlight my plight. The IRFU have made it clear that they do not intend subscribing to the trial. At the same time, we feel that World Rugby are stalling: it is in their power to compel domestic governing bodies to sanction the wearing of the goggles, but they are not doing so.
“Since the trial began 22 months ago, in all the multiple age-grades, contexts and standards of testing, not one injury or incident has been reported to World Rugby. Therefore, it simply makes no sense to me that this matter cannot now be progressed.”
McKinley is hoping to see three specific outcomes from his awareness-raising campaign:
“In the short term, we want to see the IRFU signing up to this trial, so that I can wear the goggles while playing in Ireland” he said. “But, ultimately, we want World Rugby to formally endorse the wearing of the goggles by players who have a proven need for them. This would then mean that all domestic unions would have to permit the goggles.
At the very least, World Rugby could alter the current position immediately, so that rugby unions that have not signed up to the trial can still allow players to wear goggles in matches in their jurisdiction.
“In the longer term, I am hoping that this campaign will demonstrate that it is possible to resume a sports career at the highest levels, despite having suffered a serious injury.
And I’m also hoping that this will show those who are concerned about safety standards in rugby that there are workable solutions to ensure players at all levels can safely enjoy the game.”
McKinley, his family and supporters are contacting leading politicians, academics, policymakers, medical experts, legal experts and representatives of sports bodies as part of their awareness-raising campaign.
They have also launched a petition, calling on the IRFU and World Rugby to resolve the current situation, and they are calling on members of the public to support their campaign by signing the petition at www.change.org