Newcastle rallied around stricken back-rower Alex McKinnon as the inspired Knights routed Cronulla 30-0 in an emotional NRL fixture at Hunter Stadium.
With McKinnon in an induced coma in a Melbourne hospital after fracturing two vertebrae against the Storm last Monday night, the Knights asked fans to “Rise for Alex” on Sunday.
And in a show of support, 18,196 spectators filed into the ground, while a plane hovered above before kick-off with a banner saying: “Get Well, Alex. 232”.
In a poignant tribute to the 232nd player to play first grade for the Knights, the Newcastle team and coach Wayne Bennett huddled together and the visiting Sharks team all clapped as the crowd indeed rose for McKinnon.
“We are all together,” Knights chairman Paul Harragon told The Footy Show on the Nine Network.
“Today is about doing our job and getting on with it, but I’ve got to say it’s really hard.
“Everyone is thinking of Alex and nothing seems to make a lot of sense any more.”
Harragon admitted Bennett had “not been himself” all week as he was “very close to Alex, very close”, but that the Knights coach had still been a “tower of strength”.
As were his players, with the Knights responding with a stirring performance to shut out the Sharks and secure their first win of the season on the back of a first-half hat-trick to centre Joey Leilua.
Playing with McKinnon’s name embroidered on the front of their jumpers, the Knights were slow to get going as the Sharks dominated the early exchanges.
But after travelling 100 metres in one set for their opening try in the ninth minute, to Leilua, the Knights were up and running.
Back-rower Robbie Rochow ran a beautiful line to cross three minutes later, with halfback Tyrone Roberts’ conversion making it 10-0 before emotions boiled over.
Taking exception to Sam Tagataese’s suspect tackle on Roberts, Newcastle prop Willie Mason stood toe to toe with his Cronulla counterpart before Sharks front-rower Andrew Fifita charged in.
Players came from everywhere but referee Gavin Badger regained control and placed Tagataese on report.
From the ensuing set, Leilua was in for his second try – and then his third 15 minutes later to have the Knights in command with a 20-0 lead.
A late inclusion after missing the past two games with a hamstring injury, fullback Darius Boyd bagged Newcastle’s fifth four-pointer on the stroke of halftime.
Like the first half, Newcastle were denied two tries by the video referees after the interval, with the only points in the second half coming through a try to Roberts 10 minutes from the end.
But after dedicating their season to McKinnon, whose No.16 jersey has been retired, the Knights had done more than enough before halftime to clinch their first competition points of 2014.
“We definitely took Alex on board today,” veteran Knights second-rower Beau Scott told ABC radio.
“Everyone knows what a top fellow he is and how much he loves his football.
“Obviously all our thoughts and prayers are with Alex.”