Munster 65 Sale 10: European Champions Cup Pool 1: We are used to seeing Munster inflict a round-six rout in Europe but usually it is borne of necessity.
The source of yesterday’s nine-try Champions Cup demolition of a hapless Sale Sharks at Thomond Park was rooted in pain.
This was no last-ditch bid for a place in the quarter-finals, no rousing finale en route to a home draw in the last eight.
The real action, the stuff of importance, was happening over in France where Clermont Auvergne and Saracens were fighting it out for those particular baubles.
The previous weekend’s 33-10 humiliation at Saracens, a third consecutive pool defeat, took care of that. So, relegated to also-rans, Munster began the climb back from rock bottom with a victory that had no wider meaning other to raise spirits for the rest of the Guinness Pro12 league campaign and the province’s bid for the play-offs. It was Munster’s highest score in European competition, surpassing the 64 put past Viadana in 2002/03 and the visitors’ heaviest defeat.
That Sale, with their own domestic issues in mind, aided the process by sending an understrength side for this dead rubber was most welcome for Munster head coach Anthony Foley in his efforts to regroup.
The visitors had put up a fight in the first half having trailed 10-0 after six minutes thanks in part to a second-minute Simon Zebo try, but failed to score beyond the 13th minute, when wing Tom Arscott ripped through a thin red line to score his side’s only try, converted by Nick MacLeod.
The Sharks laid siege to the Munster try line and even gained an advantage when Andrew Conway was sin-binned midway through the half for an accumulation of team penalties at the breakdown but Sale failed to make it count. Yet they trailed 13-10 at half-time and were in with a shout of inflicting Munster’s second home defeat of the pool stages following Clermont’s win here in round three. And a try inside the opening minute of the second half from a fit-again and persistently dangerous Keith Earls saw the Premiership side fold.
Eight more tries followed as Munster filled their boots, making use of the opportunity to stretch their legs in the face of a dormant defence.
Earls had been removed from the action as a precaution after experiencing tightness in his groin following his 41st minute try, having more than made his impact at outside centre in his first start of the season following knee surgery.
Earls’ pace and vision had proved too hot for Sale to handle in a performance that highlight how much Munster have missed a cutting edge in midfield this season to provide decent outlets for the back three to feed off.
Indeed, wings Andrew Conway and Ronan O’Mahony as well as full-back Zebo all carried more than 100 metres apiece as Munster ran riot.
The rout continued after the home pack bared its teeth and secured a penalty try in the 54th minute before the real fireworks started, Foley’s side running in six tries in the closing 16 minutes. Pat Howard, on for Earls in his final appearance before returning to Western Province, Tommy O’Donnell and Duncan Williams all touched down while Zebo and Conway finished with two each, Keatley kicking two penalties and four conversions before replacement fly-half JJ Hanahran completed the scoring with three conversions of his own as Munster bowed out with something resembling half a smile on their faces.
With Clermont beating Saracens 18-6 at Stade Marcel-Michelin to top the pool and set up a home quarter-final against Northampton Saints, Saracens also reached the last eight as the third best runner-up on 17 points and must travel to Racing Metro, the opportunity wasted by Munster in Pool 1 was all too plain to ignore. It will be the “ifs” and “what might have beens” which will drive Munster on for the rest of this season and Foley will welcome any kind of boost to the fragile morale of his players. The ruthlessness of his team to keep pushing for more tries will have been pleasing, not just to him but the 17,685 faithful who turned up to witness the last rites of their province’s European campaign.
It might also have helped to jolt Foley out of the bewildered haze his side had sent him into at Saracens the previous week.
Munster's Paul O'Connell in action against Sale Sharks. Pic: Inpho
“I had to ask somebody during the week what day it was, it was that bad,” the head coach admitted.
“You’re in a dark place. I’m not sure how to explain it, we have a very high expectation of where we were and to perform like that against Saracens wasn’t us and we’ve got to go and dig and find a reason why.
“Sometimes there are no reasons why. Sometimes you meet a team on a day and you make errors and they capitalise on it and they take their opportunities. You can use whatever phrase you want but when you’re in this job as a player or a coach it’s a different world to the real world out there ... (but) you know you’re intelligent people and you’re dealing with intelligent people who know we messed up.
“We know the Clermont home game was the game that ultimately cost us
“I thought the fellas fronted up physically very well and I thought the pace in the second half caught Sale and fellas are putting their hands up left, right and centre to play for Munster.”
Foley will be relying on that spirit an awful lot more in the weeks to come.
MUNSTER: S Zebo; A Conway, K Earls (P Howard, 44), D Hurley (I Dineen, 22), R O’Mahony; I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan, 71), D Williams; J Cronin (J Ryan, 64), D Casey (E Guinazu, 65), BJ Botha (S Archer, 64); D Foley (B Holland, h-t), P O’Connell; Dave O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell, P O’Mahony – captain (P Butler, 64).
SALE SHARKS: L McLean, T Brady, M Jennings, A Forsyth, T Arscott; N McLeod, W Cliff (N Fowles, 62); A de Marchi, T Taylor (C Neild, 62), R Harrison (C Parker, 71); A Ostrikov, J Beaumont, M Easter, D Seymour – captain (G Nott, 62), V Fihaki (A Hughes, 52).
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy).
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