Wayne Bennett challenged the Newcastle Knights – players and fans alike – to continue rallying behind stricken Alex McKinnon after watching his inspired team crush Cronulla 30-0 for their first NRL win of the season.
With McKinnon in intensive care in a Melbourne hospital after fracturing two vertebrae against the Storm last Monday night, the Knights asked fans to “Rise for Alex” on Sunday.
In a show of support, 18,196 spectators filed into the ground, while a plane hovered above before kick-off with a banner reading: “Get Well, Alex. 232”.
In a moving tribute to the 232nd player to play first grade for the club, Knights players and coach Bennett huddled on the field as the visiting Sharks team and the crowed, on their feet, clapped for McKinnon.
And to top off an uplifting day dedicated to McKinnon, the Knights released a statement two hours after fulltime stating that his condition had improved slightly, with his assisted ventilation removed allowing him to now communicate with his family.
The Newcastle players rose to the occasion with a stirring performance, shutting out the Sharks with a six-try rout led by first-half hat-trick hero Joey Leilua.
But while his side’s on-field revival has begun, Bennett – who described 22-year-old McKinnon as “like a son” in a touching tribute in a Sunday newspaper – reminded the Knights that the youngster’s recovery was still a long way off.
“He’s got a very difficult journey in front of him and I didn’t want anyone to forget him either on that journey, which we can do very, very easily,” Bennett said.
“Our challenge is not today. Our challenge is for the next two years because he’ll be challenged every day for the next two years at least, until he knows what his future life holds for him.
“As committed as we are today, I want us to remain as committed to that cause because he’s going to need all our help.
“We’ve got to all stay strong now and stay right behind Alex. That was my message this afternoon. This wasn’t a one-off event here today.”
Skipper Kurt Gidley assured Bennett that McKinnon wouldn’t be forgotten.
“Macca’s with us for the rest of the year,” Gidley said. “He’s our teammate.
“He’s going to be on our jersey and part of our spirit for the rest of the year and there’s a few of us making the trip down to Melbourne tomorrow, which will be an emotional day I’m sure, for the first time seeing him since last week’s game.”
McKinnon was placed in an induced coma last Tuesday but his condition is understood to have improved over the weekend.
“I think he had a pretty good day today,” Bennett said.
Gidley was overcome with relief at fulltime on Sunday.
“Obviously it was a tough week, but we had to get the job done today, in any way,” he said.
Playing with McKinnon’s name embroidered on the front of their jumpers, the Knights were slow to get going as the Sharks dominated early.
But after travelling 100 metres in one set for their opening try in the ninth minute, to Leilua, the Knights were up and running.
Two more tries to Leilua plus four-pointers to back-rower Robbie Rochow and fullback Darius Boyd – a late inclusion after missing the past two games with a hamstring injury – gave the Knights a match-winning 26-0 halftime lead.
A 70th-minute try to halfback Tyrone Roberts was the only points of the second half.
Compounding Cronulla’s woes, prop Sam Tagataese was placed on report for a suspect tackle on Roberts.
The Sharks are now the only winless team in the competition after four rounds.