Melbourne's charge towards a fourth NRL minor premiership in six years has picked up pace after they swept aside Penrith 37-10 to claim a club record 16th straight win.
In a clash that barely befitted a grand final rematch, the Storm outplayed, outclassed and completely outdid Penrith at an empty at Suncorp Stadium.
Missing five representative stars and their back-up half, Penrith are certain to be a far bigger challenge to Melbourne if they meet again come finals.
But on Sunday they were never really in the contest, allowing Melbourne to skip two points clear at the top of the ladder with a far superior for-and-against.
And while Penrith are without some of their stars for at least another month, Melbourne are now near being back to full strength.
Ryan Papenhuyzen got through 46 minutes at fullback in his second game back, poking his head through a number of times and looking a threat before potting a last-minute field goal.
"He looked a lot more confident today and over the next couple of weeks he will improve even more," coach Craig Bellamy said.
"He looked a bit hesitant last week and he thought that himself.
"But today he looked more confident. He will slowly but surely build him up and we'll give him what we think is the right amount of minutes."
Harry Grant also played 59 minutes in his comeback match out of dummy-half, scoring a try late as the Storm fielded their first-choice spine for the first time since round six.
"I thought Harry was really good," Bellamy said.
"We planned to give him a rest at the end but we ran out of replacements.
"His game was real strong. A couple of things defensively in the first half he probably didn't do so well but he sorted it out in the second half.
"The rest of his game was real good for a guy who had six weeks off."
The only issue for Bellamy could be working out how to play all his stars, with the coach admitting it is hard to take the No.1 jersey off Nicho Hynes.
Brandon Smith has also been superb at dummy-half, with Bellamy likely to continue rotating him with Grant and mixing up their minutes.
Halfback Jahrome Hughes has also come along significantly compared to even last year when the Storm won the title, throwing the last pass for tries to Reimis Smith and Jesse Bromwich on Sunday.
He also kicked in another for hat-trick scorer Dean Ieremia, after breaking through the line in the lead up to the winger's first.
Penrith will at least get Isaah Yeo and Api Koroisau back next week against Sydney Roosters, while Nathan Cleary remains out indefinitely.
But coach Ivan Cleary would not have accepted their absences as an excuse for their worst defensive effort since he returned to the club in 2019, after they trailed 36-0 until late.
"It's not about the players we were missing, it was about the players we had," Cleary said.
"Throughout the night our defensive resolve was not good enough .. .They scored too easily and too often."
Australian Associated Press