The Melbourne Storm have moved into outright first mid-way through Round 13 after defeating the Penrith Panthers 24-6 in front of 11,116 fans at AAMI Park on Saturday night.
A first-half masterclass from Cooper Cronk set up the big victory for the Storm, as the Maroons halfback provided all three try assists as the Storm took a 10-point lead into half-time on the back of a dominant display from big men Jesse Bromwich, Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris.
It wasn’t all the way of the home side however, as the Panthers took the lead inside the opening seven minutes through Blues winger Josh Mansour.
Penrith had the extra man on the left hand side after Suliasi Vunivalu overcommitted, and Tyrone Peachey was able to put Mansour over in the corner for the game's first points.
The Panthers had all the early field position and looked on top of the Storm, but that all changed in the 18th minute.
Cooper Cronk played a short ball to Jesse Bromwich, which saw the Kiwis captain power his way over the line for Melbourne's first try.
The Storm cut the margin to two points in what was shaping up as a dour affair, but it would be a piece of brilliance from the Melbourne skipper that would bring the game to life.
Cameron Smith, sporting the unusual No.20 jersey, put in a fantastic 40/20 to give the Storm quality field position, something they wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the half.
The home side would hit the lead only three minutes later, as Kevin Proctor barged his way over the line after another assist from Cronk.
Cronk had his third assist of the half just five minutes later as he put a low kick into the corner for Ryan Morgan to run on to and give the Storm a 16-6 lead at half-time.
The Panthers came out after the break with purpose and found themselves over the line within minutes, but the play was called back as the final pass to Dallin Watene-Zelezniak was deemed forward.
Only minutes later, Watene-Zelezniak was again centimetres away from scoring in the corner if not for a last-ditch tackle from Marika Koroibete.
Jamie Soward jumped on a loose ball after a second Vunivalu error in as many minutes and shifted it wide for the Panthers winger in open space.
Koroibete met Watene-Zelezniak with a fierce bump in the corner to keep the Panthers out.
Koroibete was later taken from the field and did not return due to concussion.
Both sides had chances to open the second-half scoring inside the opening 20 minutes, but it would take a penalty to the Storm to break the deadlock.
Blake Green was taken high by Isaah Yeo under the posts with 15 minutes to go, and Smith made the Panthers pay, pushing the margin out to two converted tries.
The second half had only garnered two points up until the final two minutes, but what followed was easily the play of the night.
Nelson Asofa-Solomona broke consecutive tackles and pushed past two more Panthers before finding Cronk with a flick pass in the middle of the field as he ran under the posts to cap off a fantastic night for the halfback.
Melbourne Storm 24 (Jesse Bromwich, Kevin Proctor, Ryan Morgan, Cooper Cronk tries; Cameron Smith 4 goals) defeated Penrith Panthers 6 (Josh Mansour try; Jamie Soward 1 goal) at AAMI Park. Half-time: 16-6. Crowd: 11,116.