Johnathan Thurston has hailed Cameron Smith as the best footballer he has played with or against as the duo prepare to line up against each other in their testimonial clash at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night.
The North Queensland Cowboys co-captain has played against the Melbourne Storm captain on 22 occasions in Telstra Premiership matches with the pair lining up together for 36 State of Origin games for Queensland and 36 Tests for Australia.
Thurston has played with and against some of the game’s best modern-day stars, including the great Darren Lockyer, but said Smith was the cream of the crop.
"I was lucky enough to play with Locky and he was four or five sets ahead of everyone else in knowing what the team needed," Thurston told NRL.com.
"In that regard, Smithy is six, seven and eight sets ahead of anyone on the field.
"He can dominate in the No.9 jersey and I haven’t seen anyone in my time do some of the stuff that he does.
"Smithy has such a good feel of how games are going that he can turn the momentum in the blink of an eye.
"He is a real leader of men and knows how to get the best out of the players around him."
The friendship between Thurston and Smith stretches back more than 25 years to their junior days with Souths Sunnybank and Logan Brothers respectively.
Thurston often gets reminded by his good mate that he was an emotional youngster.
"Smithy has got a memory like an elephant,” Thurston grinned.
"I think we were 10 years of age and I’ve thrown an intercept pass and someone has run the length.
"Smithy’s recollection is that someone has turned around and I was on the ground crying, which would have been true because I was a massive sook when I was younger. Whenever we lost there would be tears galore.
"We played under 13s or 14s in a south-east Brisbane team together and our paths would cross at all the rugby league carnivals for schools. He’d be South Coast and I’d be Met West.
"When we started getting into late high school, we started forming a good friendship and then we played Junior Kangaroos together which is when our friendship took off."
It is why Thurston feels privileged to have had Smith beside him in their adult careers.
"For all my best memories in the Origin arena, the biggest stage, I’ve had him alongside me," he said.
"On and off the field, some of the best memories I have ever had are with him beside me.
"He is still one of my best mates, even though there have been times when he has pulled me aside and told me to pull my head in.
"Smithy is enjoyable to be around and we always have a laugh. We don’t take life too seriously, but we know when to switch on when we have to."
Cameron’s father Wayne Smith, a former hooker for Easts in the Brisbane competition, was coach of Logan Brothers junior teams when his son and Thurston first crossed paths.
He soon realised they shared similar traits.
"Cam and Johnny share that same competitive spirit and even back in that under 10s age group they were reading games and had more game awareness at that age than the other kids," Wayne said.
"They were both and still are, instinctive footballers, and because of that they read the opposition and their own players as well as they read the game.
"Cam has developed that understanding with Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater and it is the same relationship he has with Johnny, where he has often said that 'it is just a look'.
"If NSW are short on numbers down the short side then Cam and Johnny see it at the same time and all it takes is a look between them and you’ll see Johnny run across from the open to the blind."
He is still one of my best mates, even though there have been times when he has pulled me aside and told me to pull my head in.Johnathan Thurston
Wayne said the duo had both proven doubters wrong who questioned their lack of athleticism.
"I was always confident that Cam understood the game, but I wasn’t convinced he’d make it because he wasn’t an athlete," Wayne said.
"I looked at the first-grade players back then and I thought ‘that’s a big jump’. When I looked at JT, I probably thought the same as everyone else, 'great footballer but too small'.
"Despite their physical stature, both have proven everyone wrong.
"They both prove we should always judge players on their football acumen and understanding of the game, and not on their athletic ability."