McKinnon’s courage to be celebrated once again

This article was first written and published for NRL.com.

The round three clash between the Storm and Knights at AAMI Park in 2014 ended in tragedy when Newcastle player Alex McKinnon was seriously injured.

When McKinnon was taken from the field on a stretcher, everyone held their breath. Over the next week, the severity of his injury was revealed. The tackle had left him a quadriplegic.

It was a horrible week for McKinnon, his family and everyone involved with the game.

Many of us think the men and women who play rugby league are unstoppable forces. That they’re gladiators.

But the injury to McKinnon very quickly reminded us of the fragility of a career in sport and how quickly it can all come to an end.

Rugby league looks after its own, so it should come as no surprise that McKinnon’s involvement with footy did not end after his injury.

Since the accident, the rugby league family has continued to follow his journey. We have celebrated the progress he has made.

Ponga set for switch back to fullback

Ponga set for switch back to fullback

We choked back tears when he married the love of his life, Teigan Power, and got up from his wheelchair and stood throughout the ceremony.

Most recently, the couple have also welcomed their first child; Harriet Anne. Today, McKinnon continues to work at the Newcastle Knights and also features as an analyst on Fox League.

Whilst McKinnon no longer plays rugby league, he is still very much part of the rugby league community. His presence is still felt at the Knights.

He is at the club almost every day, so much so that new recruits need little time to become friends.

Hymel Hunt commented this week on just how much McKinnon does for the community and how actively his presence is felt at the club.

This weekend, the Knights will play the Dragons in the fourth iteration of the “Alex McKinnon Cup”; a game between two clubs that played pivotal roles in McKinnon’s playing career.

Given that the Knights have not made the top eight since 2013 and the Dragons feature in the finals regularly, it may not surprise you to learn that the Knights have never actually beaten the Dragons in this fixture. Is this the year that run will end?

The Dragons are coming off the back of their first win of the season, defeating the Brisbane Broncos last Thursday by 25-24.

But the Dragons are not a team that is at full strength missing key players like Tyson Frizell, Jack de Belin and also Gareth Widdop.

This has resulted in a game of musical chairs.

As devastating as Widdop’s injury is, potentially it takes away McGregor’s selection headache.

For the Newcastle Knights, they were hyped before the season as top-eight contenders due to their off-season recruitment. The arrival of David Klemmer, James Gavet, Kurt Mann, Hymel Hunt and Edrick Lee has bolstered the squad considerably.

However, just like the Dragons, they are sitting on one win after three rounds.

Much of the focus has been on Kalyn Ponga and the decision to switch him into the halves. It looks like this experiment only lasted three rounds with Ponga being named at fullback for this weekend.

Ponga has proven that he is one of the most explosive players in the NRL at  fullback and I have no doubt that he will look to have plenty of involvement in this game.

Regardless of who wins, the game named in honour of McKinnon is another good example of the rugby league community coming together.

When I think of Newcastle I think of rugby league. I know that Novocastrians cherish the Knights and each player that has pulled on that red and blue jersey.

I’m expecting that rich history to continue on Sunday.