The final kick that James McKinney placed in the Ulster jersey proved to be a crucial one as it not only came off the tee for the fly-half in five nights, it was also the province’s attempt to win the game in the last win at Thomond Park. .
nd As the current squad prepares for their latest attempt to end a nearly eight-year drought in Limerick, the man who scored four penalties and a conversion in a man-of-the-match attempt en route to a 19-17 victory in 2014 did, currently starting on a new adventure in his life.
Exactly eight years after that wild and windy day, McKinney, now a physiotherapy student at the University of Ulster, responds warmly when asked about the day in Thomond Park, where a much-winded Ulster team took off in Munster. The side boasted names such as Casey Lulala, Dave Kilcoyne, Paul O’Connell, Simon Zebo and also introduced Tommy O’Donnell, Connor Murray and Keith Earls off the bench.
“It was an opportunity for people like me. We didn’t see it as a weak team,” recalls the former Campbell college man.
“Munster was a lot of stack, I remember O’Connell, Laulalla … He had some quality players in there. When you’ve got to go there, put that performance on paper before the game even starts.” It is good to keep
“It’s a victory that lives on in my memory, it was a good day for our people.”
As good as it was that day, three of that team would head out the door at Ravenhill for the final time, though only a few weeks later. At the forward, prop Adam McLean led the English Championship outfit Rotherham Titans and flanker Sean Doyle returned to his native Australia and the Brumbies.
The second one to depart was McKinney. The then 23-year-old felt he needed to spread his wings outside Ravenhill to reach his full potential and to achieve that, he would follow McLean to Rotherham.
He went under fire after that stellar performance against Münster, and was then called up to play the final 24 minutes of Ulster’s Pro 12cm a week later against Leinster at the RDS Arena. But, despite requests to stay, he will stick to his decision to go elsewhere.
His career was not the path he might have hoped for, mainly due to injuries. For example, a spell in Bristol lasted two years, but you could count the number of appearances on one side, such as the amount of time he spent at the healing table. He also had stints in Italy and Australia, while he also briefly served as a medical clown in Japan.
Despite all this, looking back on his career now, McKinney has undoubtedly made the right call and, in particular, he believes it is not just for rugby reasons.
“You grow up on the roof in Ravenhill and you watch your heroes play. It’s an incredible feeling and one of the best days of your life when you get to make that call yourself,” he says .
“But I decided to play in other countries and experience other cultures, to learn a little bit about myself and other people. I am very grateful for the opportunity I have from Ulster, but do I regret leaving? No way.
“It has nothing to do with Ulster, they were very good with me and I would love to have a chance again. But would I change my mind then? No, because of the personal growth that I have seen in myself.”
“You’re alone in a foreign country where you probably don’t speak the language and you have to grow and expand as a human being. Of course I wouldn’t change that.”
Now 32, McKinney can see how his decisions have affected him as a person. With each new experience he has matured and, to him, what he can do within the confines of the rugby pitch is far more important.
Coaching with youth teams and learning from coaches has given them a whole new perspective. Being able to say that he has lived in six different countries and immersed himself in the culture of each has broadened his horizons. Had he lived in Belfast his entire career, those opportunities would never have presented themselves.
Overall, his rugby career has done more for him as a person than as a rugby player. Some may return disappointed. McKinney, instead, sees it as a blessing.
“I always look at it because I want to be seen as more than James McKinney, a rugby player. I want people to know James McKinney as the guy who, yes, he’s a good rugby player, but more importantly, That he is a good boy too,” he adds.
“Learning about people and culture and life has been really rewarding for me. I’ve been all over the world and whether you’re playing professionally or helping out with amateur coaching, rugby is this universal language, no matter what. No matter where you are in Belfast or Japan, everyone understands this.
“These cultures, even if they don’t understand you, embrace you, because you are there for a reason and you can use that as a tool.
“Would I have liked to live in Ulster and play my whole career here? Absolutely. But would it have potentially been most beneficial to me as a human being? Maybe not.
“But did you know that at the time when you’re 20, 21? Of course you don’t. And neither should you because you’re young.
“To be able to do that, and still do it in minutes, is definitely something that I am very blessed to be able to achieve through rugby.”
So, then, what’s next for the James McKinney human? Coming back full-time for the first time in Northern Ireland since he left Ulster all the way in 2014, he says he’s been able to catch up with friends and family he hasn’t seen in a long time while giving him the chance. You are also getting that, start your studies.
But while the James McKinney human has always had a priority, rugby player James McKinney hasn’t completely taken a back seat just yet.
“Frankly, I have never retired. If given the opportunity, I still feel that I can offer a lot to professional sport,” he revealed.
“I intended to travel the world playing rugby and then step back and start studying, but Covid forced me to study a little earlier than I expected and I am really enjoying it! After being injured for so long, I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve spent a lot of time with some excellent medical professionals – it’s something that I think can add a lot down the line.
“But I’m happy to do so, moving on with my life in the forward direction, rather than having someone call me to play for them.
“If something comes up, it’s going to be a decision right now, is it worth my time? Am I having so much fun studying that I really say no?
“It’s good to be in that situation, especially with Covid.”
It’s not bad to go out if the winning kick at Thomond Park proves to be his last in the Ulster jersey, but who knows, maybe there’s another twist in the story for rugby player James McKinney.
But if there isn’t, the James McKinney human is fine with it. And that’s all that matters.