Retiring Rooster Cooper Cronk says criticism of former teammate, and more recently controversial sparring partner, Cameron Smith has been "unwarranted" as he prepares to face the Immortal in-waiting for the final time.
Cronk and Smith will dominate the lead-up to Saturday's five-star grand final qualifier once more, with the Storm out to end the career of one of its favourite sons.
The relationship between Cronk and Smith – one that started as teenagers and housemates before spanning almost 300 games as well as premierships, Origin and international triumphs – has been analysed ad nauseam in the last 18 months.
A cold handshake from Cronk sparked the speculation, along with an off-the-ball confrontation during last year's grand final.
Smith has also worn plenty of late around wrestling tactics and a concerning act notice he received for roughing up the ears of Canberra's Bailey Simonsson.
A ring gifted to his wife Barbara by the NRL to mark Smith's 400th first grade game also raised eyebrows, while his sin-binning for slapping Parramatta's Reed Mahoney was just the second occasion Smith has been marched in 18 seasons.
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"I didn't see the incident ... but I suppose when it comes down to this time of year, every inch, every millimetre is vital to your performance," Cronk said of Smith's slap on Mahoney, which was punished with a $1350 contrary conduct fine on Monday.
"When that pressure's on the line, you want to scratch and fight for every inch for your football team.
"Cameron Smith's arguably the best player that's ever played the game. He's the player I most respect that I've come across in my career. He can do whatever he wants.
"He's got a long list of achievements that's not going to stop him from playing the way he plays.
"I know that he's integral to the way that Melbourne Storm plays so I'm sure that he'll be scratching and fighting for every inch."
Asked about the mounting criticism of his former captain Cronk said: "I don't know where it's come from. I can only speak on my behalf.
"As I said he's the player that I respect most in my entire career.
"Without his influence I don't have the moments I've had in my career that I can look back on when I'm 60 and go 'yeah that's pretty cool, I achieved that'. He was front and centre for most of it.
"[The criticism] is unwarranted and I'm sure he'll be going out to play his best football."
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Cronk was sporting a decent black eye at Roosters HQ thanks to an accidental knock from teammate Angus Crichton at training last week.
Well aware of the emotion around having to beat the club that "helped make me" to keep his career and the Tricolours' premiership defence alive, Cronk conceded that element of Saturday's build up "is probably going to make it even harder."
But he has no qualms with the focus falling on one last 'Cronk v Cam' showdown, or the photo from last year's decider where he has Smith by the throat at ANZ Stadium.
"You can market the hell out of it - I won't see it," Cronk said.
"I think as long as rugby league is front and centre of all the good things in media coverage, then I'm all for it.
"Because at the end of the day, what gets people excited about this game, I'm all for as long as it's done in a respectful manner.
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"I wouldn't call (the photo) iconic. Iconic is an exaggeration that. There was no angst or malice in that.
"I had a sore shoulder and they were obviously coming for me. That could've been Craig Bellamy or Cameron Munster or Jesse Bromwich coming for me in the same moment because I was kicking the football, their job is to put pressure on and make me miss my kick.
"I'm not going to sit there ... I think you need to stand up for yourself in moments like that.
"If it happens again, doesn't matter who it is, if I have the ability to get off the ground I'll stand up for myself."
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