NEWCASTLE, NSW - 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, 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.
The Newcastle players then 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."