The Melbourne Storm have cruised to victory in their final regular season of the game, running out 24-16 winners over the Cowboys at AAMI Park tonight.
Storm skipper Cameron Smith was superb for the home side, creating two tries and having one disallowed, sending an ominous warning to his rivals as finals football looms next week. Rookie fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen was also outstanding, making 30 runs for close to 300m in an astonishing performance from a player that was the third string fullback for the Storm at the beginning of the season.
The Cowboys ended a horror season that never got going, with the retirement of club legend Jonathan Thurston proving too big a gap to fill in a thoroughly disappointing season for coach Paul Green and his roster.
In a match the Storm were expected to win, North Queensland stunned the visitors, when Cowboys half Michael Morgan took on the line and attracting two Storm defenders. The Queensland stalwart then threw a superb ball for his rookie winger Murray Tuilagi who touched down for his second first grade try. Jordan Kahu missed from the sideline, but the visitors had the earlier ascendency at 4-0.
The Storm didn't let the shock lead bother them, and when they gained field possession they made it count, with a beautiful backline movement finding winger Sandor Earl, who stepped inside three covering Cowboy defenders to plant the ball down. Cameron Smith converted and the Storm lead 6-4.
Closing in on halftime, the Storm again marched downfield and in a classic move from skipper Smith, who drifted out of dummy half close to the line, found a steamrolling Nelson Asofa-Solomona who burst through three would-be tacklers to extend the home side's lead at the break to 12-4 following Smith's conversion.
Melbourne continued their dominance in the second half, when halfback Jahrome Hughes spotted the numbers on the blindside and then put in a deft grubber for Will Chambers to score and extend the home side's lead to 16-4. The Storm then charged down field again, when former Storm player and Cowboys fullback Scott Drinkwater became frustrated and was penalised for kicking out at the ball from marker. Smith took the two points on offer and Melbourne were 18-4 with half an hour remaining.
After a frustrating night, Cowboys fullback Drinkwater then hit back against his former side, getting the ball on the outside from Morgan and then produced a superb flick pass out the back from Kyle Feldt to score in the corner and get the visitors back in it. Trailing 18-10 after Feldt nailed the conversion from the sideline, to give his side a glimmer of hope.
Melbourne continued to hold the upper hand however, and completed a comfortable victory when skipper Smith was first denied from an old fashioned scrum play close to the line. However, the skipper couldn't be denied when the crafty hooker threw a superb inside ball for interchange forward Max King to crash over for the final try for the Storm and secure yet another notch on the belt for the 2019 Minor Premiers.
Veteran Cowboys backrower Gavin Cooper collected a Tom Opacic grubber to score a consultation try, however it had no effect on the result with the Storm running out 24-16 winners in a convincing display heading into the Semi Finals next week.
Melbourne will host either the Raiders or Rabbitohs, depending on tomorrow's result at GIO Stadium when Canberra host the Warriors. The Cowboys look ahead to 2020 and the opening of their new Townsville stadium.