Sport Rugby League Rugby league’s finest hour as game rises for Alex
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Rugby league’s finest hour as game rises for Alex

Alex McKinnon is overwhelmed by the reaction to his return to Hunter Stadium.
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The weekend Rugby League rose for Alex

During an era where the shameful actions of a minority gobble up the headlines and negative incidents are magnified, rugby league has every right to feel proud of itself after the emotional and uplifting ‘Rise for Alex’ round.

Knights fans came out in force for McKinnon. Photo: Getty
Knights fans came out in force for McKinnon. Photo: Getty

The spirit, camaraderie and generosity of the rugby league community came to the fore during one of the most stirring weeks in premiership history, dedicated to young Alex McKinnon and designed to raise money for the injured Newcastle Knights forward’s long rehabilitation – and to lay the platform to support other players at all levels of the game who are similarly affected.

Besides the Kiwi-dominated 37,082-strong crowd that turned out for a thriller at Suncorp, the attendance figures and quality of the contests on Friday and Saturday were slightly underwhelming – but the atmosphere and general feeling of goodwill was unmistakable; everyone’s thoughts were with the inspirational McKinnon.

The sight of modern-day greats Johnathan Thurston, Jarryd Hayne, Cameron Smith, Greg Inglis, Robbie Farah and Michael Ennis, along with Origin forward and close mate Boyd Cordner, wearing the No.16 jersey as a tribute was particularly poignant, and spoke volumes for the manner in which McKinnon’s bravery has touched his peers.

Arguably no player with fewer than 50 first grade appearances to their name has had as much of an impact on Australian rugby league as McKinnon since pioneering superstar Dally Messenger.

Jarryd Hayne was one of a series of players to don the No. 16  jersey as a tribute to McKinnon. Photo: Getty
Jarryd Hayne was one of a series of stars to don the No. 16 jersey in tribute to McKinnon. Photo: Getty

The emotion was ratcheted up several notches at a packed Hunter Stadium on Sunday afternoon. McKinnon, returning to his home ground for the first time since that fateful April night in Melbourne, took the field with the Knights and Titans players, and was given a rousing ovation.

• McKinnon overwhelmed

• Rebuilding Alex

Understandably, he was overwhelmed by the reception, and he wiped away tears as the crowd cheered for their young hero. But he was far from alone in that respect, as many in the stands, and surely thousands watching at home, were similarly overcome. It was unforgettable, goose-bumps stuff.

“I didn’t really know how I was going to handle it, to tell you the truth,” McKinnon said at halftime after addressing the crowd.

“It was pretty full-on. I was trying to hold everything back, but at the end of the day I suppose my true self came out and there were a few tears but you can’t help that can you?

“I’m very overwhelmed by the support. I’m very thankful.”

Perhaps distracted by the emotion surrounding the week, the Knights were noticeably off the pace in going down 22-8 to the struggling Gold Coast. But the result was purely academic in the wider picture – some things are more important than two competition points. McKinnon was presented with a $300,000 cheque, while the ‘Rise for Alex’ drive has reportedly raised over $1.1 million so far.

The 2014 NRL season has produced a plethora of highlights to date, while there are plenty of twists and turns still to come and a Grand Final to be won and lost. But the year will, quite rightly, be primarily remembered for the courage of this lovely 22-year-old kid from Aberdeen, whose positivity in the face of his heart-wrenching plight has proved an inspiration for the entire code.

 

Kurt Gidley (C) and Willie Mason stand alongside McKinnon before the start of Sunday's match. Photo: Getty
Kurt Gidley (C) and Willie Mason stand alongside McKinnon before the start of Sunday’s match. Photo: Getty

Griffin’s integrity pays dividends, but Bennett threat still hovers

Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin could not be accused of putting the prospects of a vital win – or his own job security – above his principles and the standards he sets for his players, dumping first-choice trio Jack Reed, Daniel Vidot and Corey Oates on the eve of the high-stakes clash with the Warriors after they got a bit boozy midweek.

As it transpired, the disruption had a positive effect on the Broncos, who snapped a three-game losing streak with a gutsy 28-22 defeat of the in-form Aucklanders. And the replacements all came up trumps, with Jordan Kahu scoring a fine try in his first top-grade appearance of the year and Lachlan Maranta defusing myriad dangerous situations at the other end. Meanwhile, Ben Hannant had an absolute blinder after coming into the starting pack and out-of-favour Martin Kennedy made a solid return after being drafted onto the bench.

Griffin also swallowed his pride and heeded calls to swap Josh Hoffman and Ben Barba around, with excellent results as Hoffman gave the Broncos far more presence at fullback and Barba handled the workload defending in the front-line.

The unassuming mentor is no certainty to remain in charge at Red Hill next year, needing a top-eight finish and an imprint on the finals from his side at the very least.

Legendary coach Wayne Bennett is strongly tipped to return to Brisbane next year, while the playing group is reportedly split on who they want to guide them into the future. But Griffin sent a timely reminder, at the end of a week dominated by speculation over his position, that he is a man of integrity with plenty to offer with the clipboard in hand.

Week to remember for …

After descending into an injury-induced slump and racked by uncertainty over the future of coach Mick Potter this week, the plucky young Wests Tigers stormed back into finals calculations with a stunning 46-18 demolition of hotshots Canterbury. The Tigers scored seven unanswered tries, with rookies Mitchell Moses and Luke Brooks in scintillating touch, and unlikely hero Keith Lulia scoring a club record-equalling four tries.

Keith Lulia of the Tigers goes over for one of his record equalling four tries. Photo: Getty
Keith Lulia of the Tigers goes over for one of his record equalling four tries. Photo: Getty

Week to forget for …

The high-flying Penrith Panthers are beginning to be exposed by key injuries and an increasingly tough draw, trounced 32-12 by the Sydney Roosters on Saturday afternoon. The Panthers probably have enough runs on the board to make the top eight, but their top-four prospects and the likelihood of making an impact in the finals are looking increasingly shaky as they face up to an arduous run home.

Play of the week

Dale Copley’s sizzling 45-metre solo try in the 64th came from nothing and swung the momentum the Broncos’ way. He crossed again three minutes later to cap an outstanding performance after being pitched into the unfamiliar left centre role at short notice.

Dale Copley was the gamer changer for the Broncos. Photo: Getty
Dale Copley was the game changer for the Broncos. Photo: Getty

Blunder of the week

The decision of Jack Reed, Daniel Vidot and Corey Oates to get on the turps midweek could prove crucial to their first grade selection prospects for the remainder of 2014. Far from indispensible, the trio are no certainties to reclaim their respective positions after the mandatory stand-down, with their replacements doing an outstanding job.

Standout performer

Playing in just his third NRL game, stand-in fullback Mitchell Moses was magnificent in the Tigers’ monumental upset of the Bulldogs. The boom 19-year-old, who is destined for the five-eighth role long-term, made two line-breaks and laid on a string of tries chiming into the backline with his playmaking class. James Tedesco’s season-ending injury may not be as catastrophic for the Tigers as it first appeared.

Monday night

St George Illawarra has surged back into finals contention and is a strong chance of upsetting ladder leaders Manly at WIN Jubilee Oval. The Dragons’ stars are humming and boast the firepower to unsettle the clinical Sea Eagles machine.