Cooper Cronk says there is no player he respects more than Cameron Smith as the former teammates square off potentially for the last time, on the same Adelaide turf where a curt handshake cast a glaring spotlight on their personal relationship.
Cronk and Smith will take centre stage at the Adelaide Oval when Melbourne and the Roosters resume hostilities on Friday night.
Unless the two heavyweights meet again in the finals, it will be Cronk's last clash against the Storm side he played over 300 games for before shifting to the Roosters last year and reportedly putting his friendship with Smith on the rocks.
Both players have been wary of giving oxygen to one of 2018's most intriguing stories, though Cronk conceded there "may have been" bad blood between the pair when he appeared on Fox Sports' NRL360 last month.
It was Cronk's comparatively cold handshake with Smith, after hugging the rest of his former teammates, in the wake of last year's Storm-Roosters clash that set rugby league's rumour mill alight.
But speaking before what looms as another mouthwatering showdown between the 2018 grand finalists, Cronk said there was nothing in the incident, and doubled down with rare praise for Smith's contribution to the game.
"There was no moving on or moving past or anything," Cronk said.
"It was just an action that happened. You guys made it a bigger deal than what it is. But my relationship with Cameron is exactly how it has been for the last 15 years.
"It's solid, it's respectful and as a footy player I don't think I respect any player that's played the game more than Cameron Smith.
"As a football player he's had a great impact on the game of rugby league but also positively impacted my career. So I thank him and respect him for that. Football is about combatants, it's about competing.
"Whether you're playing a game of table tennis or a game for two points or a grand final, I think you'll see most guys competing against their opposition."
Cronk's announcement that 2019 will be his last season in a stellar career will see him bow out as the most experienced halfback in rugby league history, while Smith is on track to play an unprecedented 400th NRL game against Cronulla in round 17.
But despite the looming milestones and prospect of facing Melbourne and Smith for the final time, Cronk gave no airs of emotion playing any part in his preparation.
"Just because there's some nostalgia around it doesn't make me compete any more," Cronk said.
"[Smith] is a very influential player in all the teams he plays for and I have relationships with a lot of people over the other side of the football field.
"Some of them like me, some of them love me, some of them probably don't like me but that's the way it is and I've got the utmost respect for every person that's been involved with that football club.
"Without the people of Melbourne Storm I don't have the life or the career I have. So part of me is very respectful and grateful for that, but unfortunately they're not going to hand us a win tomorrow night."