NORTH QUEENSLAND last night at least managed to stop one of Melbourne's season-opening purple patches - but the real purple reign continues unabated.
Going into the penultimate game of round six, Craig Bellamy's men had scored first in every match. When Matt Bowen crossed off an Aaron Payne kick in the third minute, 20,206 Dairy Farmers Stadium fans had cause for another Easter beer. By midway through the second half, however, the locals were drowning their sorrows as Melbourne raced to a 42-18 win - their 12th from 14 away games.
With less than two minutes left in the first half, Melbourne led 16-6 and already looked well on control. But Cooper Cronk committed a rare fumble and from the NQ scrum win, Johnathan Thurston sent Gavin Cooper hurtling towards the tryline. The back-rower steamed through Slater to score, Thurston converting to narrow the margin to four by the break.
After the break, North Queensland had no answer to tide after tide of Melbourne raids, which brought four more tries.
The game had begun with Payne, playing his 200th first grade game, kicking ahead out of dummy-half and fullback Bowen racing through to dot down just short of the dead-ball line in a fashion that has been in vogue this season. Five-eighth Thurston pleased the big Easter crowd with his conversion.
The Smith-Cronk-Slater show didn't take long to grease its gears.
Hooker Smith and halfback Cronk combined on the left side in the eighth minute with centre Dane Neilsen, who found Kiwis winger Matt Duffie unmarked on the sideline. Duffie had a clear run to the line but would not have pleased coach Craig Bellamy with his one-handed put-down. Nonetheless, thanks to Smith, the scores were soon tied.
Thurston's restart sailing out on the full attracted groans from the Townsville crowd - and crafty Melbourne fell just short of crossing again in the 18th minute.
Cronk kicked for fullback Slater, heir Queensland teammate Brent Tate just managing to knock the ball out of the air and escape with a Cowboys line dropout. While Melbourne back-rower Ryan Hoffman recovered from a head-knock, the Storm added to their total.
Cronk's short ball launched forward Kevin Proctor at the tryline, and he had too much of a head of steam to be stopped - although Thurston tried valiantly. With Smith's conversion, the six-point lead looked like it would grow. Matt Bowen and Gavin Cooper temporarily stemmed the tide when they rounded up Gareth Widdop in the nick of time in the 33rd minute.
The Cowboys missed a golden opportunity of their own when Cooper's pass landed at the feet of unmarked winger Antonio Winterstein shortly after - but there was no denying the brilliance of Melbourne's third try.
Cronk kicked ahead for Slater, who in turn found NSW Origin hopeful Ryan Hinchcliffe backing up for a try that would have been just about impossible to defend. Smith's conversion missed - and then Cooper gave NQ some reason for second half optimism.
While North Queensland coach Neil Henry might have wished the half-time break had not occurred, rival Craig Bellamy seemed to make the most of the spell. Almost immediately from the resumption, Slater made a long-range break, play swept from the right touchline to the left, and replacement Jason Ryles plunged over between the posts for a touchdown that was easily converted.
Matt Bowen probably thought he had dodged a bullet when he threw a wild pass in his own in-goal in the 48th minute and team-mate Ray Thompson just managed to beat Melbourne's Ryan Hoffman to the lolling ball. But Thompson just delayed the inevitable.
A few seconds later, centre Will Chambers planted the ball on the try-line one-handed for the touchdown that just about guaranteed the result. The Cowboys' goal-line defence was exposed five minutes later when Proctor posted his second try, off a Cronk pass, from close range.
Before kick-off, Melbourne were boosted by the return of Justin O'Neill two weeks early from a calf injury. He replaced Sisa Waqa on the wing. One encouraging sign for the Cowboys was the big attendance - it is expected the club will apply to make the Sunday night clash with Melbourne a regular Easter fixture.
MELBOURNE 42(W Chambers 2 M Duffie 2 K Proctor 2 R Hinchcliffe J Ryles tries C Smith 5 goals) bt NORTH QUEENSLAND 18 (M Bowen G Cooper J Tamou tries J Thurston 3 goals) at Dairy Farmers Stadium. Referees: J Maxwell/G Reynolds. Crowd: 20,206