Munster booked their place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the 11th successive season with a comprehensive 37-14 victory over Sale Sharks at Thomond Park.
Ahead of next week's trip to Montauban, the defending champions became the first team to make the last eight as they overwhelmed the Sharks with six tries in the Limerick rain. First-half scores from man-of-the-match Paul O'Connell and Jerry Flannery saw them establish a 12-6 half-time lead.
Sale, who failed to transfer their Guinness Premiership form into this do-or-die clash, closed the gap to 19-14 with a Charlie Hodgson try, but further touchdowns from Ian Dowling, Tomas O'Leary and Paul Warwick confirmed Munster's dominance.
Sale settled early, retrieving Luke McAlister's kick-off and when Mark Cueto dinked a bobbling ball into the left corner, Doug Howlett had to rush his clearance. But a rapier-like thrust from Keith Earls, who did brilliantly to surge forward on to his own grubber kick, helped Munster explode into life.
Earls' fourth-minute cameo presented quick ball for Tomas O'Leary on the Sale 22, Warwick hit the line at pace and hacked on and when Ronan O'Gara swept forward to secure possession on the deck, O'Connell followed up by diving over the line from two metres out. Television match official Derek Bevan confirmed the grounding, O'Gara's conversion attempt faded away and Sale missed an immediate chance to reply when Hodgson missed a penalty.
The Sale No.10 redeemed himself by converting a ninth-minute penalty but the visitors' defensive frailties were shown up again just three minutes later when Flannery crossed for try number two. The Munster pack, with O'Connell and David Wallace the principal ball carriers, built through the phases. Chris Jones blocked an O'Connell pass but O'Gara scooped up the loose ball, Warwick straightened up the attack and Wallace fed Flannery for the corner.
O'Gara converted to take his Heineken Cup points-scoring record to 1,003 points but some indiscipline from the home forwards allowed Sale reduce the arrears. McAlister took over the place-kicking duties after Hodgson had missed a kickable left-sided penalty and the All Black closed the gap to 12-6, thumping a huge effort over from the right.
That came after Flannery turned villain when he was yellow carded for a blatant foot trip. However, Sale, who had the advantage of a blustery wind, could not penetrate the red-shirted defensive wall and they then lost Andy Tuilagi to a shoulder injury.
Rudi Keil, McAlister and Cueto showed promise on the ball but their opportunities were far too limited and Philippe Saint Andre's men could not find their regular rhythm. Their night was summed up when Munster, so eager to impress after shock Magners League defeats to Connacht and Ulster, burst through for a try after just 26 seconds of the second half.
Sale captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe collected O'Gara's restart but he was hit hard by O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan, Munster gained turnover ball and Wallace pumped his legs to wrestle free of McAlister and crash over the line past Hodgson and Chris Bell. The try went unconverted and Sale then enjoyed their best spell around the 50-minute mark when McAlister pumped a penalty through the posts and Hodgson then rounded off a breakaway for his try.
Dwayne Peel was sprung from the bench and the Wales scrum half injected some much-need pace into Sale's attacks. He tapped a quick penalty and jetted over the halfway line with the Munster rearguard scattered. Big prop Eifion Roberts was up in support and he bumped his way past two players before Hodgson carried the move on and dived in the left corner.
McAlister's missed conversion left it tantalisingly poised at 19-14 but, showing the sort of form which garnered them the trophy last May, Munster upped the ante for the closing quarter. They enjoyed a slice of good fortune for their bonus point try when Hodgson fumbled a kick to the corner from O'Gara and the ball fell invitingly for winger Dowling to slide over and score.
With the rain beginning to tumble down, Sale were continually pressed back into their 22 and off a close range scrum, Munster number nine O'Leary wormed his way over past David Doherty. McAlister tried to inspire his side but Munster, with O'Connell in inspirational form, went for the jugular as they tightened their grip on Pool One and banished Sale's European hopes.
A shuddering hit by Howlett on Keil preceded Warwick's easy run-in in the 74th minute and the Australian tagged on a last-minute penalty to push the winning margin out to 23 points.
Man of the match Paul O'Connell was delighted to see his Munster side bounce back to top form. "We just really wanted it. We put a lot of ourselves into it this week. There's been a lot of talk about Thomond Park in the last few weeks, a lot of opposing players talking about playing here. The crowd are fabulous here but they don't do anything for you on the pitch - you have to do that yourself. We filled the jersey well today."
The Munster skipper highlighted Wallace's try as crucial. "Every team in the world goes in at half-time whether you are behind or ahead and the cliché is to make the first score - be it a three pointer, five pointer or a seven pointer. That first score is vital. I'm sure Sale were saying the same thing in their dressing room. Donncha (O'Callaghan) caught Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe with a good turnover and Wally (David Wallace) did what he's been doing all year then. That five points was massive.
"Attacking them was the best form of defence for us, playing down there putting them under pressure, making them defend and taking it out of their legs. Defending is the hardest thing on your fitness and that's what we did from that try."
Sale director of rugby Philippe Saint-Andre admitted his side had been beaten by the better side. "I think one needs to congratulate Munster. When you concede six tries against a team, it is not good," he said. "Munster played a lot of the good rugby tonight - we were second best at the contact area and the body position wasn't right. Munster played well and we tried to play catch-up rugby. We came back within five points but made too many mistakes and they finished us.
"They played very well, they were very physical and they won 90% of the contact area and were able to kick to the corner to relieve pressure. I've nothing more to say other than they were much better than us. Now we need to focus on the Guinness Premiership. We have the best defensive record in the Premiership, I think we've only conceded nine tries in 11 games and today we conceded six tries. They played very well and didn't make any mistakes, and tonight we weren't good enough to match them."
Munster: Warwick; Howlett, Earls, Mafi, Dowling, O'Gara, O'Leary; Horan, Flannery, Hayes; O'Callaghan, O'Connell (capt), Quinlan, Wallace, Leamy.
Replacements: Fogarty (Flannery 76), Ryan (Quinlan 55), Ronan (Leamy 70), Stringer (O'Leary 71), Hurley (O'Gara), Pucciariello and Murphy not used.
Sale: Cueto, Bell, Tuilagi, McAlister, Doherty, Hodgson, Wigglesworth, Faure, Jones, Roberts, Chabal, Schofield, Jones, Briggs, Lobbe (captain).
Replacements: Turner (Roberts 75), Sheridan (Faure 46), Cockbain (Schofield 46), Abraham (Jones 59), Peel (Wigglesworth 51), Keil (Tuilagi 28), Tait (Hodgson 62).
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRFU)