McKinnon's surprise visit lifts defeated teammates

Recovery mode: Canterbury skipper Michael Ennis puts his arm around injured Newcastle forward Alex McKinnon on Saturday night. Photo: Supplied
Recovery mode: Canterbury skipper Michael Ennis puts his arm around injured Newcastle forward Alex McKinnon on Saturday night. Photo: Supplied

Newcastle captain Kurt Gidley said the Knights were rapt by the sight of injured teammate Alex McKinnon in the dressing room when they arrived at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night for their game against Canterbury.

McKinnon's smiling face helped lift the players' spirits as they returned to the sheds after their nail-biting 16-12 loss to the NRL leaders.

Gidley said McKinnon's determination to recover from the ''devastating spinal injury'' he suffered against Melbourne at AAMI Park on March 24 was a constant source of inspiration, and the skipper could not help feeling they had let the 22-year-old Country Origin forward down by letting the game slip through their fingers in the final 10 minutes.

One of a handful of players to visit McKinnon at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital on Friday before joining the rest of their teammates in overnight camp, Gidley said he had no idea McKinnon would be at the game.

''He's got a great attitude, Alex. It's great to see him with a smile on his face, and it was a nice surprise today,'' Gidley said after the match. ''I saw him at the hospital yesterday, but none of us boys knew he was going to be at the game today.

''We knew he was going to be close to coming to a game. It was an instant smile on my face when I saw him in the dressing rooms. It was nice, and that's probably what made it a bit hard seeing him after the game today.

''It would have been great to get the result for him today, but it was still great having him here at the game and it's nice to see the progression he's making, too, from where he was.''

McKinnon was given a leave pass from the rehabilitation ward of the Royal North Shore Hospital's spinal unit to attend his first game since he fractured and dislocated two vertebrae when driven into the ground in a three-man tackle in Newcastle's 28-20 loss to the Storm five weeks ago.

Sitting in his electronic wheelchair alongside fiancee Teigan Power, and behind Wayne Bennett, McKinnon watched the action unfold from the Knights coaches' box.

In a stirring moment midway through the first half, images of McKinnon sitting among the Knights' coaching staff were shown on the giant television screens at the ground, prompting spontaneous applause from the crowd of 15,286.

Fans of both teams stood and clapped to express their admiration and demonstrate their concern and care.

In an interview posted on the Knights' website on Friday, McKinnon said he was overwhelmed by the support he had received from the rugby league community and beyond, and could not completely express his gratitude. ''I've obviously come a long way,'' McKinnon said.

''I've got a lot more movement back in my right arm and a lot of movement back in my left arm, so it's just a matter of time before I hopefully have a bit more movement in my legs.

''I've got a great sensation and feeling in my legs and it's a lot of positive signs.

''I've got a great family, they've been here every day, and I have got a great partner [Power].

''Just being able to have them by my side for the last four weeks has been able to help me the most,'' he said.

This story McKinnon's surprise visit lifts defeated teammates first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.