Cameron Munster celebrated his 26th birthday with a try-scoring double as the Storm beat the Cowboys 36-20 and all but wrapped up a vital top-two position.
It was Melbourne’s 11th consecutive win over North Queensland with their last loss back in the 2015 preliminary final.
The Storm are up to 30 points, enjoying a four-point lead over the third-placed Roosters, who have a better points differential, and would need to lose both their remaining games to miss out on a top-two finish and the right to play two finals at Suncorp Stadium.
Munster’s tries either side of half-time put the game beyond reach but the Cowboys rallied with three second-half tries.
The power and punch of Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui up front set up Melbourne’s win early.
“They are big boys and really made a statement," Storm coach Craig Bellamy said.
Match: Storm v Cowboys
Round 18 -
Venue: Sunshine Coast Stadium, Sunshine Coast
"Nelson has played 100 games but is only 24 and Tino is in his first year of first grade and he is the only guy in our team this year that has played every game.
“He has done an incredible job and I thought they were both really good. When they had a rest and came back on they continued the good work they started."
The Storm played in front of 16 Queensland-based Old Boys including 1999 premiership winners Matt Geyer, Tony Martin, Stephen Kearney and Marcus Bai.
The Cowboys stunned the Storm early when Esan Masters put in a grubber for Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to score out wide in the seventh minute.
Munster gets a double on his birthday
Josh McGuire was then sin-binned for dissent while in possession from the restart and the Storm made the visitors pay with Asofa-Solomona crashing over.
The big Storm forwards starting queuing up close to the line and Fa’asuamaleaui was unstoppable from close range when he hit a Cameron Smith pass to perfection.
Josh Addo-Carr’s strength was too much for Kyle Feldt to handle in the middle of the field, and his speed did the rest in a 30-metre sprint to score under the sticks.
The Storm’s last try before half-time was a cracker with the ball moving from one touchline to the other.
Smith sensed the Cowboys were well short of numbers on their right and ran the ball that direction on the final tackle before sending Munster on a stroll over the line for a 24-4 half-time lead.
Munster, who had a running verbal battle with his opposite number Scott Drinkwater in the first half, took matters into his own hands after the break with a dazzling scoot which included a hurdle of John Asiata as he lay on the ground.
Smith was all smiles even when he was denied a try, due to Jahrome Hughes being offside from a kick, which would have taken him past Craig Bellamy’s all-time try-scoring mark of 46 tries.
Marsters soon sprinted away to score his second try of the season. Then Feldt leapt high to snaffle an outrageous cross-field kick from Drinkwater for the Cowboys to trail 30-14.
Jesse Bromwich’s slick ball skill put Hughes over after Munster went within a millimetre of a hat-trick but the Cowboys hit back through Valentine Holmes.
Holmes, Drinkwater and Tabuai-Fidow showed plenty of flair to suggest there are better days ahead for the Cowboys next year if they can improve their leaky defence.
Bellamy was also disappointed with many points the Cowboys scored against his side.
"There were a couple of little lapses and I thought we lacked a little bit of urgency at stages with our defence," he said.
"It is the time of year you want to start fine tuning things and I don’t think we did that.
"Having said that we have come off a big month where we played some of the top teams in the competition in the Roosters, Souths, Manly and Parramatta and three of them we travelled for so perhaps that is why we were flat tonight.
"Hopefully that is the little lull we needed to resharpen our focus."
Cowboys coach Josh Hannay said the McGuire sin-binning was a turning point, although he was unsure what the veteran lock had said.
"I haven’t had a chance to talk to Josh yet," Hannay said.
"Obviously that was a big moment in the game. We are up 4-nil, we have got the ball after starting the game the way we wanted to and then we have a man in the bin.
"When we got a fair share of the pill we were able to put some points on. I really liked their enterprise, belief and resolve."