NZ Warriors heavyweight Mitch Barnett will have to put one very special friendship on hold for Saturday's NRL Finals blockbuster against his former Newcastle Knights in Auckland.
Before joining the Warriors this year, Barnett spent seven seasons with the Novacastrians, where he forged some strong bonds through some very testing times.
Perhaps the strongest were with the Saifiti twins – Jacob and Daniel – who Barnett shared the forward trenches with on many occasions at McDonald Jones Stadium.
One telling measure of their relationship is Barnett's appointment as Jacob's best man for the Knights props upcoming nuptials, returning the favour from his own wedding.
The pair will be on opposite sides of the fences at Go Media Stadium Mt Smart amid the white-hot intensity that comes with sudden death finals rugby league.
For Saturday at least, best friends become mortal enemies.
"It's a funny one," Barnett admitted. "We're in the middle, we mix it up with one each other and may the best man win.
"When the siren goes, we'll be mates again. But until then, we'll have to mix it up and there's no avoiding each other."
Barnett's best man reference is likely punintentional, but the pair will be critical to their respective team's causes as part of packs that will go a long way to deciding who emerges with their season intact.
"I'm just preparing like it's another game and focusing on doing my role for the team," he added.
"They're playing a grand brand of footy. They've been rolling forward and defending well and have some blokes who are just competing so hard for them.
"It's going to be a great challenge and I'm looking forward to it."
Despite a season hampered by a neck injury, Barnett has been one of the key components in a Warriors group that has established itself as one of the competition's best in 2023.
Skipper Tohu Harris and Addin Fonua-Blake have consistently been the standouts, but Barnett's numbers have been in their vicinity whenever he's been on the field – and the eye test backs that up.
Alongside Dylan Walker, Barnett has been one of the best value pickups of the NRL offseason, but the New South Welshman is adamant he has another level he's yet to reach.
"I haven't had the season I've wanted to obviously. Missed a lot of games with injuries and have sort of been a bit off and on – haven't been able to build consistent footy.
"It's been one of them years for me, but when I have been on the field I've been reasonably happy with how I've played but obviously always striving for more
"But this is the pointy end of the year and where better performances count the most."
While the scoreline in Penrith for their finals opener was lopsided in the defending champions' favour, Barnett belives the Warriors weren't as far off the pace as the 32-6 on the boards suggests and has no doubt his squad has the quality to extend their playoffs run beyond this weekend against the red-hot Knights.
"We actually weren't that far off," he insisted. "I know the experts are probably going to have different opinions but at the end of the day we put them under no pressure, and if we do that things look a lot different
"We'll be fine. We have a lot of guys with finals experience across the board.
"I have complete faith in our squad."
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