Storm clinch 1st place in the National Rugby League

SYDNEY — The Melbourne Storm have clinched first place in the National Rugby League with two regular-season rounds remaining.

The Storm ended Newcastle's three-match winning streak Saturday with a 44-12 win over the Knights, giving Melbourne 40 competition points on the season from 18 wins in 22 matches.

Second-place Brisbane, which kept pace by beating St. George Illawarra 24-12 on Friday, has 34, level with the Sydney Roosters, with a maximum four points available from the last two games.

Playmaker Brodie Croft, replacing the rested Cooper Cronk, scored three tries and set up two others to help the Storm clinch the J.J. Giltinan Shield for winning the NRL's minor premiership.

In other early weekend matches, South Sydney winger Alex Johnston scored three tries to give him 22 on the season in the Rabbitohs' 36-18 win over the New Zealand Warriors. Johnston scored two second-half tries to help Souths score 24 points in 20 minutes and overcome an 18-12 deficit.

Cronulla moved into fourth place with a 26-16 win over injury-hit North Queensland. The Sharks led 24-6 at halftime but managed only two second half points against the resurgent Cowboys who stayed in eighth place.

"We'll get better in the weeks to come but today was certainly a step in the right direction and we are getting back to where we need to be," Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan said. "I thought we were pretty good in the first half. We had aggression in everything we did and I was pretty happy at halftime.

"It was forty minutes of pretty good footy and when you're playing against a team like that, that won't give in, you just have to do your best."

North Queensland had used 32 players this season prior to the start of Saturday's game in which they lost Kalyn Ponga and John Asiata to injuries.

Parramatta are fifth after a 30-8 win over the Gold Coast Titans while sixth-placed Penrith will play Canberra and seventh-placed Manly will play the Bulldogs on Sunday.

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