Newcastle Knights coach Nathan Brown says Melbourne Storm are better than last year.

HOW good are Melbourne Storm? Better than last year, according to Knights coach Nathan Brown.

STRIKEPOWER: Melbourne fullback Billy Slater, left, and winger Suliasi Vunivalu. Picture: Darren Pateman, AAP

STRIKEPOWER: Melbourne fullback Billy Slater, left, and winger Suliasi Vunivalu. Picture: Darren Pateman, AAP

The gulf between the NRL’s first and worst teams was highlighted on Saturday when Melbourne gave Newcastle a 44-12 lesson at McDonald Jones Stadium.

The result clinched Melbourne’s second consecutive minor premiership and left Newcastle needing at least one win from their final two games – against Canberra (away) and Cronulla (home) – to have any hope of avoiding a third successive wooden spoon.

Brown said the Storm were “clearly the No.1 side in the competition” and a benchmark his own young players should aspire to emulate.

Asked if they were more formidable than last season, when they lost 14-12 to Cronulla in the grand final, Brown replied: “I think they’ve got a fair bit on last year. Billy [Slater] is back, and we all know what an impact he has on any team.

“[Cameron] Munster is a player that has continued to grow and has proven that at Origin level now. And the other thing which is a little different to other Storm sides we’ve seen … they’ve got a number of big, powerful blokes who get themselves in position to promote the ball.

“And they seem to do that more now than what they probably ever have done.

“So I think they’re clearly a better team than last year.”

Storm coach Craig Bellamy said he had been “a touch concerned” about the strength of his 2017 squad, after the off-season departures of Kevin Proctor, Blake Green and Marika Koroibete.

“Whether we’re a bit better than last year, I’m not quite sure,’’ Bellamy said.

Storm skipper Cameron Smith felt there was room for improvement.

“With all due respect to Newcastle, we could have put a fair few more points on the scoreboard,’’ Smith said.

“Newcastle were very brave, but I just thought we turned over some cheap ball in the ruck, some silly offloads, which is something that’s plagued our entire season, at stages.”

Making Melbourne’s win even more meritorious, champion halfback Cooper Cronk was rested and his replacement, Brodie Croft, scored a hat-trick of tries in only his fifth NRL game.

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