Knights tip crowd will rise for Alex McKinnon

KNIGHTS officials will be hoping the #RiseForAlex round can prove the catalyst for a much-needed reconnection with the Novocastrian community.
Shanghai night field

Newcastle’s home clash with the Gold Coast on Sunday week will signify the first time Alex McKinnon has returned to Hunter Stadium since the terrible accident that left him with a career-ending broken neck.

While it has not been decided if the 22-year-old Aberdeen junior will appear on the field before the game so that fans can pay their respects, a bumper turnout is anticipated nonetheless for what shapes as one of the most emotional days since the Knights were founded in 1988.

A host of other activities, including a post-match concert headlined by Jessica Mauboy, will ensure it is a special occasion and a season-high attendance is expected.

The Knights would welcome a revival in home-ground support.

In six games at Turton Road this season, their average crowd is 17,151, which represents a decline of 9.8per cent on last year’s average of 18,836.

Last year’s attendances were down 9.9per cent on their standard 2011 turnout of 20,919.

So, in the space of three seasons, Newcastle’s home crowds have slipped by an alarming 17.5per cent.

Poor performances have undoubtedly been a contributing factor, but many believe the Knights also lost touch with their traditionally loyal fan base during the three tumultuous years under Nathan Tinkler’s ownership – despite Tinkler’s initiative to cut the price of season tickets.

Knights officials felt the NRL draw did them no favours earlier in the season, but they apparently have no complaints about the scheduling of their final four games, which was confirmed last week.

A statement on the club website said ‘‘the Knights are overall pleased’’ with home fixtures against Melbourne (Saturday, August 9, 5.30pm), the Warriors (Sunday, August 17, 2pm), Parramatta (Saturday, August 30, 3pm) and St George Illawarra (Sunday, September 7, 2pm).

Barring horrendous weather, it is hard to imagine their crowd figures will not improve significantly over the last third of the season, starting with the #RiseForAlex round and finishing with the annual Old Boys reunion day at the last home game.

■ Never before has there been such a disparity in the experience of two rival coaches.

Veteran Knights tactician Wayne Bennett will control his 700th top-grade game – a competition record – when Newcastle face Cronulla at Remondis Stadium on Sunday.

His opposite number will be interim Sharks coach James Shepherd, who made his NRL debut in last week’s miraculous win against the Roosters.

Incidentally, NRL chief executive Dave Smith has thrown his support behind the retention of Bennett, whom he described as ‘‘a wonderful man and been a wonderful part of the Newcastle team’’.

“Hopefully he chooses to stay, but ultimately that’s up to Wayne. We need to make sure we do all the right things to make [Newcastle] stronger,’’ Smith said this week.

■ The debut of former Canberra prop Sam Mataora was a rare highlight for Newcastle’s NSW Cup side in their 26-0 loss to Illawarra Cutters last weekend.

Mataora (114kilograms) is a comparative lightweight compared to coach Rick Stone’s starting props Toka Likiliki (134kilograms) and Pat Vaivai (120kilograms).

Last week’s result left the Knights clinging to eighth and they will be hoping to bounce back against struggling Manly at Brookvale Oval on Saturday.

■ Newcastle’s under20s can take a further step towards the National Youth Competition minor premiership with a win against the Sharks on Sunday.

The Knights are joint leaders with Brisbane after both teams have posted 11 wins, one draw and three losses from 15 games, but Newcastle have a superior for-and-against record.

Cronulla are third last and are winless in their past five starts.

The Knights have won three successive games. They also have the best away record (7-2) in the competition.

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