Having made his way from Aberdeen to the NRL at both the Dragons and Knights before his career was tragically cut short following a terrible spinal injury, Alex McKinnon has an incredible story to tell as he now embarks on new life as a father and as the Knights Recruitment Manager.
Recently, McKinnon spoke to fellow former NRL player Isaac John on ‘The Ice Project’ podcast where the two discussed all things from his junior footy, to playing under Wayne Bennett, his injury and his great love for where he is now in his life, both professionally and personally.
McKinnon has been a part of recruiting since 2018 and not only displayed his enjoyment being in the role, but also his excitement for where the Club is heading due to the top-quality across the playing group and coaching staff.
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RECRUITING TO NEWCASTLE
Initially after being forced to retire from the game, McKinnon admitted he felt “lost” but has since found a role that’s seen him become key in developing what was become a very strong roster at the Knights with plenty of depth coming through the ranks.
The former Country Origin representative confessed there were many parts that have played a factor in building the squad and that make his job easier.
“There’s so many years of planning and recruitment that’s gone into that side,” he said.
“From my perspective as a recruitment guy, you’ve got to believe what you’re selling.
“I can genuinely pitch to a player ‘look, we’re going to put you in an environment with a coach you’re going to love. You’re going to love the players, you’re going to love the group, you’re going to love Newcastle’.”
“What I’m selling is easy.”
“I feel very lucky to be able to do that. I wouldn’t work for any other club. The position that I’m in is very fortunate and I really enjoy it.”
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Part of McKinnon’s role also sees him scouting emerging talents from the Hunter Region and beyond and it’s become the part of the job that he loves the most.
He’s even gone the extra mile to develop apps that help him in the role.
“Talent ID – I love it,” he said.
“I’ve developed two apps that I use for a lot of statistical stuff and I’ve really delved into it. I love it.
“I love going to watch the kids footy. I love that more than the NRL stuff.
[I love] Engaging with families, seeing how hungry, focused and driven the kids are.”
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While coach Adam O’Brien is currently in his first year, he’s brought with him a lot of experience.
McKinnon spoke fondly of the influence O’Brien has already had on the Club stating he was “very lucky to have him.”
“From his time down at Melbourne, and from his time at the Roosters, there’s not much that he hasn’t seen.
“He’s been able to win a premiership at both places.
“He’s so personal, he’s a knock-about guy, but he understands standards and has a really good rapport with the players.”
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Everyone loves Ponga’s creativity, speed, toughness, and ability to create something out of nothing, but what many may not have initially associated with the exciting fullback is his leadership skills.
But that’s exactly what McKinnon praised Ponga for when podcast host, Isaac John, asked the former Dragons man what something was others outside of the Club wouldn’t know about the youngster.
“He’s a real leader,” he said.
“If KP speaks up and puts his foot down, you can hear a pin down.
“He delivers on the field and when he can start to evolve as a leader, the sky is the limit.
McKinnon even recalled a moment from the past that instantly grabbed his attention when he sat in on a team meeting and since then Ponga has grown his abilities on and off the field to lead the Knights.
“I think it was a year ago, and he disagreed with something in the meeting, and I went ‘oh, hang on a minute, you can go anywhere, you could be the captain of our club’,” he said.
“The way he’s able to speak about things and articulate, and the respect he has for the group. He sky-rocketed to the top but stayed so humble. I think a lot of the boys love him because of that.
“We’re lucky to have him.”
RISE OF MANN
Staying on the subject of players who have impressed in Knights colours, Kurt Mann has shone since taking ownership of the five-eighth position in the team and the former Junior Kangaroos and Blues forward was asked what was behind the aspects of Mann had taken his game to the next level.
“It’s really important to understand the person and what the player needs,” he said.
“Adam [O’Brien] gave him the 6 jumper right from the beginning. He recognised that he’d been moved around a fair bit before that.
“He gave him the confidence and he stuck with it. Kurt’s been able to grow massively.”
Despite having both Mitchell Pearce and Ponga alongside him, Mann has led the team in try assists so far this season and has proven his sturdiness with the ball in hand as well as on the defensive end.
McKinnon believed the former Dragons and Storm utility provides great balanced to the team’s spine.
“I first signed Kurt to the Knights because I knew him character-wise.
“But defensively he’s really strong. He’s very competitive and a champion guy.
“Usually the 6 is more creative, off-the-cuff, defends well, doesn’t necessarily kick a lot, opportunistic – I think Kurt has been able to do that.”