Melbourne’s charge towards a fourth minor NRL prime minister post in six years gathered pace after sweeping Penrith 37-10 for a club-record 16th straight win.
In a clash that barely suited a big final rematch, the Storm dominated, outclassed and completely passed Penrith into a void at Suncorp Stadium.
Missing five representative stars and their backup running back, Penrith will certainly be a much bigger challenge for Melbourne if they meet again in the final.
But on Sunday they were never really in the contest, allowing Melbourne to jump two points ahead at the top of the ladder with a much higher pro-and-con.
And while Penrith has been without some of her stars for at least a month, Melbourne is now on the verge of regaining her full strength.
Ryan Papenhuyzen spent 46 minutes at the back in his second comeback, passing the lead several times and appearing a threat before scoring a last-minute basket.
“He looked a lot more confident today and over the next few weeks he will improve even more,” said coach Craig Bellamy.
“He looked a little hesitant last week and he meant it himself.
“But today he looked more confident. He’s going to slowly but surely build it and we’ll give him what we think is the right number of minutes.”
Harry Grant also played 59 minutes in his halftime return game, scoring a late try as the Storm aligned his prime spine for the first time since round six.
“I thought Harry was really good,” Bellamy said.
“We had planned to give him some rest at the end but we ran out of substitutes.
“His game was really strong. He probably didn’t do so well defensively in the first half, but he fixed it in the second half.
“The rest of his game was very good for a guy who had six weeks off.”
The only problem for Bellamy could be figuring out how to play all of his stars, with the manager admitting it’s difficult to take Nicho Hynes’ No.1 shirt off.
Brandon Smith also looked great at half the model, with Bellamy likely to continue spinning him with Grant and mixing up their minutes.
Half-back Jahrome Hughes also improved significantly from last year when the Storm won the title, throwing the final test pass to Reimis Smith and Jesse Bromwich on Sunday.
He also kicked hat-trick scorer Dean Ieremia another kick, having crossed the line before the winger’s first.
Penrith will at least recover Isaah Yeo and Api Koroisau next week against the Sydney Roosters, while Nathan Cleary remains out indefinitely.
But coach Ivan Cleary would not have accepted their absences as an excuse for their worst defensive effort since returning to the club in 2019, after trailing 36-0 until late.
“It’s not about the players we missed, but the players we had,” Cleary said.
“Throughout the night our defensive determination wasn’t good enough … They scored too easily and too often.”