By Rachael Price

St George Illawarra Dragons lock Trent Merrin was unreserved when he spoke of his close friend and former teammate Alex McKinnon’s strength and tenacity through the changes in his life.

The Shellharbour Sharks junior saw McKinnon take to the field in the Red V for his debut game against the Goldcoast Titans as a fresh-faced 19-year-old where he scored two tries.

Despite his friend’s injury, the 24-year-old is inspired by the positivity that emanates from the former Dragon and will be auctioning his playing boots in McKinnon’s honour to raise money for the Rise For Alex fund.

“I’m pretty close to Alex and it hit home as soon as it all happened,” said Merrin.

“I wanted to do something for him straight away but we knew we had to allow things to settle down and see what the outcome was; NRL is doing a great job with the Rise For Alex round.

“It’s the same as being close to someone at home or a family friend, there’s no difference in the friendship just because it’s NRL.

“We went through grade footy together, we played in under 20s games together and we hung out away from the footy field too.

“This has been a very touchy and emotional period of my life seeing something happen to someone so close; it’s something you never want to see happen to a close friend.

“When the newspapers were printing the story it was very surreal; it finally hit home and it was a very tough time.

“In saying that, with the negatives, he is one of the most positive and strongest kids I’ve come across.

“To go into the hospital and see him smiling and seeing the good morale that he has is pretty inspirational.

“His goal is to walk again and I know he’ll get there.

“I was lucky enough to play my hundredth game this year from which I’ll be donating my boots to auction to raise money for the Rise For Alex Fund.

“My boots will be up for auction on the St George Illawarra Dragons website from Friday until Tuesday; it would be great to see fans get behind this cause and show their support.”

The NSW Blues State of Origin representative is eager to see his comrades take to the field in the Rise For Alex round and is confident the Red-and-Whites can overcome the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles at Jubilee Oval, Kogarah on Monday.

“In all the games of this round all of us will be playing for him, especially at the Dragons, he spent a lot of time here and he’s touched a lot of players.

“I’m pretty devastated that I won’t be able to play in the round but I’ll definitely be cheering the boys on and hoping we get the win on Monday.

“There has been a great vibe around the club for a while, the boys are happy and confident; you get a few wins and it changes the whole club.

“We are all on a high and they’ve had the week off to freshen up; it’s a brutal sport that we play so any break is great for the body and mind.

“We are roaring and ready to go for Monday night.

“I had my shoulder scanned earlier in the week and they’ve estimated that I’ll be out until about round 21; that’s when I can start looking at putting on that Iron Man jersey.”

The 2010 Premiership winning player is not fazed by speculation that former club coach Wayne Bennett is returning to the Red V but is focused on taking his teammates to the finals.

“Paul McGregor has a lot of respect around here; he’s played at the highest level of NRL," said Merrin.

“He’s not afraid to tell you how it is, even if you’re a rep player, he’s not scared to tell you if you’re not playing at the level you should be playing at and that’s what we need.

“All the boys are happy with his coaching and it’s a good environment to be in and that’s reflected in the way we are playing on the field.

“I have a lot of respect for Wayne Bennett; I won a Premiership under him and he taught me a lot as a young player coming up through the ranks.

“We haven’t bought into all the speculation surrounding Wayne; Mary is doing a top job here at the club and we believe in him.

“We are in this year, not next year, so we’re just concentrating on the remainder of this season.

“Wayne is definitely one of the best coaches I’ve come across and I was lucky enough to win a Premiership under him but our focus is on winning our way to finals footy.”