Cronulla flex their NRL premiership muscle

Cronulla, Melbourne and North Queensland have flexed their muscle to emerge from the State of Origin part of the NRL season as the teams to beat.

All three clubs registered impressive wins in round 20 as the cream rose to the top with just six weeks remaining in the regular season.

Cronulla have 36 competition points to be on top of the ladder and they are two clear of Melbourne with defending premiers North Queensland in third on 28 points.

While it was hard to read too much into the Sharks’ 36-4 rout of last-placed Newcastle, it highlighted their attacking prowess.

Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan was measured in his praise.

Happy with their 15th win a row, he was none too impressed with their discipline.

“I’ve got mixed feelings about our performance,” Flanagan said.

“We had patches and we scored some good tries but we probably had too many errors in possession. I think we had 19 errors. Against a good side you can’t do that.

“But in saying that, if Newcastle weren’t presenting us with so many opportunities, we wouldn’t have pushed the pass.”

Two-try hero Ben Barba was brilliant as the Sharks ran riot over the Knights to retain top spot.

Melbourne put forward a strong case that they should be considered premiership favourites with a clinical 26-10 win over Sydney Roosters at AAMI Park on Saturday night.

The Storm have now lost just three games and are on track for potentially their best regular season.

Excluding the years they were rubbed from the record books for salary cap cheating, they recorded their best season in 2011 when they lost just six games in the home-and-away rounds and finals.

Newcastle, NSW and Australian great Andrew Johns marvelled at the combination of skipper Cameron Smith and halfback Cooper Cronk, saying they deserved to be considered the team to beat.

“It was just Melbourne doing the Melbourne thing,” Johns told the Nine Network’s Footy Show.

“They just get it done. They’re the team to beat if they stay injury-free.

“The form of Smith and Cronk – they just know what to do at the right times, they are such a well-coached team and so well led by their on-field generals.”

North Queensland remained on track to go back to back with a 36-0 smash up of top-four contenders Canterbury in Townsville.

But Cowboys coach Paul Green does have a headache with Johnathan Thurston suffering a hamstring injury which could rule him out for three weeks.

On Sunday, Wests Tigers coach Jason Taylor was vindicated in his decision to drop hooker Robbie Farah as his side ran out 25-12 winners over St George Illawarra.

The Gold Coast continued to be the feel-good story of the year as they remained in the top eight with a 34-14 defeat of the injury-hit Parramatta on Saturday.

And Canberra jumped into the top four with a golden-point 26-22 win over Warriors with Jarrod Croker the hero.

But Brisbane continued their worrying slump with a 31-12 loss to Penrith on Friday night.

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