As they continue to deal with the shock of Alex McKinnon’s career-ending neck injury, captain Kurt Gidley said Knights players have dedicated the rest of the NRL season to their team-mate who remains in a critical but stable condition in a Melbourne hospital.
On the recommendation of coach Wayne Bennett and senior players, pack leader Willie Mason said the Knights would wear McKinnon’s name and club number, 232, on their jerseys all year, starting with the game against Cronulla at Hunter Stadium on Sunday.
The No.16 jersey McKinnon wore when he suffered a ‘‘devastating spinal injury’’ in Newcastle’s 28-20 loss to Melbourne at AAMI Park on Monday night will be retired for the rest of the season as another mark of respect.
Prop David Fa’alogo, named to wear No.16 against the Sharks, will now wear No.18.
‘‘I’d like to think we play the rest of the year for him,’’ Gidley said yesterday after the team’s first training session since the game against the Storm.
‘‘He’s a champion young fellow, Alex. He’s well liked throughout the team, and he loves his footy in general – he lives and breathes his footy.
‘‘I know it will certainly be a tough time for him going forward with his rehab but he’s got the full support of all of us as players, and I’m sure everyone from Newcastle.
‘‘We’re all in a bit of shock and a bit of disbelief and I’m finding it hard to believe what happened until I probably see him.’’
The Knights have launched a #RiseForAlex campaign through social media, and before the game on Sunday will ask the crowd to stand and applaud as a show of support.
Rarely lost for words, Mason struggled to keep a lid on his emotions or express his despair.
‘‘It’s unprecedented what’s happened and how you’re supposed to feel in situations like this ... We’re all grown men but this is something that hasn’t happened before and there’s no manuscript to say how you’ve got to feel,’’ Mason said.
‘‘He’s one of our brothers. I love Alex like a little brother so, you know, it sucks.’’
Mason was standing next to his fallen comrade moments after the tackle and, though he would not divulge details of what was said, Mason said he was horrified by what McKinnon and the Knights trainers were saying as the 22-year-old forward was being treated on the ground.
‘‘We’re a pretty strong group and we’ve got a pretty good leader there in Wayne Bennett, so we’re going off him. He’s a strong man and a leader of men ... so we’ve got to continue but we’ll never forget Alex McKinnon,’’ Mason said.
‘‘It’s hard to block your emotions or grasp the whole situation. It’s uncommon for all of us.
‘‘Me and Danny [Buderus] were saying the other day how we were lucky to have over 15-year careers ... so you are blessed every time you walk on that field or even train, so it’s just a really bad moment for sport in general, I suppose.
‘‘I think every player brings the baggage of playing on their emotions a little bit, and we’re a pretty highly strung bunch of blokes at the moment so don’t piss us off.
‘‘Even talking about it makes me emotional now so talking about it before the game will be even harder, so I’ll just shut my mouth and get on the field and let my actions do the work.’’
Gidley said the players first became aware of the gravity of McKinnon’s condition when they returned to the dressing-room after full-time on Monday night, and three days later were still coming to terms with the fact he will never play another game with them.
‘‘Each day we’re getting updates through text messages how Alex is going, and his family and his girlfriend of course, so the club is really good at the moment as far as keeping us up to date and how he’s going,’’ he said.
Gidley was certain the three-man tackle by Jordan McLean, who has been charged with a dangerous throw, and brothers Jesse and Kenny Bromwich was an accident, and he had been heartened by the overwhelming support for McKinnon from the league community.
‘‘Alex being a much-loved team-mate of ours – he’s only a young fellow just starting his career – so it certainly has been tough for all of us involved, so all our thoughts are with Alex and we hope the best for his recovery,’’ he said.
‘‘I think everyone is still in a little bit of shock at the moment because we haven’t seen him since he left the field, so I imagine seeing him in person will be fairly confronting.
‘‘But all our thoughts are with him and his family and we’re looking forward to playing this week and playing with plenty of pride.’’
Gidley said players planned fly to Melbourne at an appropriate time to visit McKinnon, then make more regular trips when he is eventually transferred to a Sydney hospital.
‘‘We know Alex would do exactly the same thing for us. He’s the type of guy that goes out of his way to help his team-mates, and he always puts his team-mates and other people first and that’s what he needs back in return,’’ the skipper said.
Bennett told radio station KO-FM yesterday that he and the players were trying to move on.
‘‘We’ve put a lot of processes in place and we’re not crying out for counselling or looking for some soft landing somewhere, because there’s none of those,’’ Bennett said.
‘‘But I think the players have been really good, there’s a great support system within the team, and that’s what we’ve been relying on. We’ve been open about it and very honest and just got on with it.’’
Gidley said the players were staying positive, and training and preparing for Sunday’s game against the Sharks would keep them from dwelling on McKinnon’s plight.
‘‘No-one’s going to get anything out of coming in here in a sombre mood, kicking stones, and not moving on with the job, because it’s not what Alex wants,’’ Gidley said.
‘‘Alex wants a result this weekend, and I’m sure he’ll be watching from his hospital bed on Sunday afternoon and he’ll want a smile on his face watching us play.’’
NRL judiciary chairman Paul Conlon, SC, has granted McLean permission to play for the Storm against the Bulldogs at nib Stadium in Perth tomorrow before appearing before the judiciary committee next Wednesday to answer a directly referred dangerous-throw charge.