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Titans hope to rise for Alex, too

Fans get to show their support for Alex McKinnon when he makes his long-awaited return to Hunter Stadium on Sunday. Credit: Colin Whelan. Copyright: NRL Photos.
It's an occasion that will unite all of rugby league and bring a passionate city to its feet and Titans coach John Cartwright hopes it can inspire his team to keep its finals hopes alive on Sunday.

All eyes will turn to Hunter Stadium as Alex McKinnon returns to Newcastle for the first time since suffering a horrific spinal injury in Melbourne on March 23 with the NRL dedicating the entire Round 19 as RiseForAlex Round.

With such emotion surrounding McKinnon's return to the club and on the back of the Knights' three straight wins, the attendance record of 32,642 set way back in 1995 will be very much under threat with the Titans potentially the villains who can spoil the party.

The Titans' last five outings have been played in front of crowds of less than 12,500 and Cartwright is hopeful that the energy and atmosphere created by a capacity crowd of passionate Novacastrians will bring out the best in his side after a disappointing loss to the Raiders on Sunday.

"It certainly will be a bonus if they handle the emotion of it all for Newcastle, Alex being a Newcastle boy," Cartwright said of the welcome that will await them on Sunday. "There isn't anyone in the game who doesn't feel for what he is going through but the fact is he's one of theirs, they're a very proud town who live for their football and I'm sure it's going to be a really emotional day.

"I'd dare say it will be a full house down there and with lots of emotion that tends to bring out the best in sides. It's an occasion that we need as well, coming off the back of last week (the loss to Canberra)."

If they needed any reminder of the challenge ahead of them, each time the players walk into the Titans offices this week they pass the reception area that is selling "RiseForAlex" wristbands in Knights team colours.

In fact, co-captain Nate Myles was sporting one on his wrist as he spoke with the media but says that despite the circumstances surrounding this game it will remain very much business as usual.

"We're not blinded by the fact that it will be an emotional weekend, especially being the team that plays Newcastle at home," Myles said.

"We know what they're going to bring, there will be a full house there supporting it no doubt and even though it's a fantastic occasion we want to go down there and get the two points.

"We don't want to ruin the party or anything but our mindset is on getting the two points this weekend."

With a fourth straight season without finals footy staring them in the face, Titans players submitted themselves to an honesty session amongst the playing group on Monday morning following the review of Sunday's loss that Myles admitted "wasn't very flattering".

They are likely to need to win six of their final eight games to be a hope of squeezing into the top eight and Myles welcomed the willingness of the players to air some confronting home truths.

"There were a few things thrown around, nothing that I'll relay here but there was a bit of honesty in regards to us as a team and a playing group which is always a good thing," Myles said. "But it's going to be pointless if we don't go out there and perform better.

"There were a couple of the boys there [who spoke up] but I think it's a good thing to be able to be brutally honest with each other and that's definitely the way we're going to be.

"The fact is we had the opportunity on the weekend to try and sneak into the eight and we couldn't get desperate enough to do it which is disappointing but we know we're still mathematically a chance."

Sunday's 36-20 defeat was Gold Coast's seventh from nine games at home so far this year and Cartwright also welcomed the brutal honesty session.

"It pretty much had to be," Cartwright said of the nature of the discussion. "The most disappointing thing is that the side is so capable of much better than that.

"We've shown that on various occasions this year but especially against South Sydney the week before. We didn't necessarily play that well against Souths but we played with plenty of character and grit and that wasn't there on the weekend.

"We had Nate come back into the side, we had continuity in our halves and I was really confident going into the game and it hits you a bit like a sledgehammer when you turn up with a performance like that."

Cartwright confirmed that fullback William Zillman is next to no chance of playing with a hamstring injury with David Mead to also remain sidelined, also with a hamstring injury.
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