The Melbourne Storm have posted a convincing 36-20 win over North Queensland at Sunshine Coast Stadium to continue their NRL finals tune-up.
- The Storm scored six tries against the Cowboys, including a double to Cameron Munster
- The victory was set up in the first half, with the Storm ahead 24-4 at the break
- The Sharks will play finals this season after defeating the Warriors 22-14
The Storm kept a grip on second place on the ladder — sitting four points clear of the Sydney Roosters — and extended their record against the Cowboys to 11 straight wins, while they also maintained their unbeaten record at their adopted home ground.
They remain three points behind the ladder-leading Panthers with two rounds remaining until the finals.
Later on Sunday, Cronulla defeated a spirited Warriors outfit 22-14 in Kogarah to lock down a finals berth.
The Storm set up the victory over the Cowboys with a big first half, racing to a 24-4 lead at the break.
But it was North Queensland who got off to the better start when young winger Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow ran onto a grubber by Esan Marsters, which caused some confusion in the Storm defence.
The 4-0 lead soon evaporated, however, when Cowboys firebrand Josh McGuire was sent to the sin-bin in the seventh minute for “verbal dissent”, having given referee Grant Atkins a foul-mouthed spray after he was tackled.
While McGuire was off the field, both Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Tino Faasuamaleaui crashed through the middle for converted tries, and the Storm established a 12-4 lead.
Winger Josh Addo-Carr showed a clean pair of heels and five-eighth Cameron Munster crossed either side of half-time to make it 26 points and it was effectively game-over after 45 minutes.
To the Cowboys’ credit, they rallied in the second half to at least make a fist of the contest.
Marsters scooted through a big hole and outpaced Storm winger Suliasi Vunivalu for a 40-metre try, while ex-Melbourne playmaker Scott Drinkwater put up a pinpoint kick for Kyle Feldt to outleap Addo-Carr.
But the Storm then ended any hope of an unlikely upset when Jahrome Hughes added their sixth try of the match in the 67th minute
Sharks clinch finals spot
The NRL’s top eight is set after Toby Rudolf landed the final dagger in the Warriors’ season and sent Cronulla to the finals.
Just two months after going back on a deal to move to the Warriors on a three-year contract to stay at Cronulla for personal reasons, Rudolf inflicted an even bigger pain on the club.
With the Sharks down 14-12 and six minutes to play after an almighty Warriors fightback, the Cronulla prop busted through three defenders to charge over and give his side a vital lead.
The match was then settled moments later when Ronaldo Mulitalo got his second of the night on the left wing, sealing the Sharks’ sixth straight finals appearance.
Former Warrior Shaun Johnson also starred in the win, playing a crucial role in both attack and defence.
It leaves Cronulla six points clear of the chasing pack, with the race for the top four now the only battle still alive headed into the final four rounds.
It also ended one of the great fairytales of the NRL era, with the Warriors having defied their COVID-19 struggles to remain a hope of playing finals football.
After Johnson set up the first two tries with grubbers for Sione Katoa and Mulitalo to set up a 12-0 lead, the Warriors looked gone.
But Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Peta Hiku helped inspire the comeback, with the former beginning it with some magic just before the break.
The former Dally M medallist stepped his way through the line and offloaded for Jack Murchie to make it 12-6 at half-time.
The Warriors suddenly had it back to 12-all in the second half when Hiku danced across field and flicked the ball out the back for Adam Pompey.
And the lead belonged to the Warriors when Chanel Harris-Tavita kicked them two points clear after Briton Nikora was pinged for a dangerous tackle.
But that was before Rudolf’s late try broke the Warriors’ hearts, and Mulitalo’s four-pointer in the 78th minute iced the Sharks’ win.