SYDNEY (AP) — Melbourne beat Cronulla 26-6 to clinch the National Rugby League minor premiership on Saturday and set up a qualifying final next weekend against the defending champion North Queensland Cowboys.
The Storm went into the match a point ahead of the Sharks, and never looked like surrendering first place after leading 10-2 at halftime.
Melbourne will host the Cowboys at AAMI Park, the same venue where North Queensland inflicted a 32-12 loss in the preliminary final last year to end Melbourne's title hopes.
The Storm have won both of their matches against the Cowboys this year, but captain Cameron Smith expected a much tougher encounter in the playoffs.
"This is finals, and these guys are the reigning premiers so they know how to play these big games," Smith said. "In recent years, they've had a pretty good record down in Melbourne, and when you win a competition you don't fear any team or any venue."
The winner of the Storm-Cowboys match will advance straight to the preliminary final and have a week off. The loser will play the following week against a winner of one of two elimination matches played next weekend between the teams finishing fifth through eighth.
North Queensland clinched fourth place by beating the Gold Coast Titans 32-16.
Sixth-place Canterbury lost for the third consecutive time heading into the playoffs, dropping a 28-10 decision to South Sydney. The 11th-place Rabbitohs finished a disappointing season with four wins in a row.
Fifth-place Brisbane overcame an early 14-0 deficit to beat the Sydney Roosters 24-14 and secure captain Corey Parker a victory in his 154th and final regular-season match.
"The first half, we didn't do ourselves any favors," Parker said. "We re-addressed where we wanted to go at halftime and the response to that was very good."
The Roosters' 18th loss of the season ensured the minor premiers of the previous three seasons will end the year in 15th place of 16 teams.
On Sunday, the third-place Canberra Raiders play the Wests Tigers, who could still make the playoffs with a win, replacing Gold Coast in eighth place. Canberra will play Cronulla in the other qualifying final next weekend.
Also on Sunday, Penrith plays the Manly Sea Eagles, and the New Zealand Warriors take on Parramatta to conclude the regular season.