Defending champions Munster racked up six tries to crush Sale 37-14 on Friday to storm into the European Cup quarter-finals for the 11th successive season.
The Irishmen, who were also champions in 2006, made sure of topping Pool 1 with their fourth victory in five matches, while Clermont moved into second place in the group with a 43-10 win over fellow French side Montauban.
“It was a very good performance, although we got a few bounces of the ball — something we haven’t been getting recently,” said Munster skipper Paul O’Connell, who scored the opening try at a rain-hit Thomond Park. “We just really wanted it. We put a lot of ourselves into this week.”
Munster were in front as early as the fifth minute when O’Connell dived over the top with the Irish camped on the Sale line after a fine break engineered by powerful center Keith Earls. The tournament’s record points scorer Ronan O’Gara missed the conversion before Sale fly-half Charlie Hodgson fluffed a penalty.
The discarded England international made amends with a successful kick just moments later, but Munster were soon back in charge with a second try after just 12 minutes. O’Gara picked up brilliantly after a flowing cross-field move appeared to have stalled. The ball was fed wide where the unlikely figure of hooker Jerry Flannery was waiting to barrel over in the corner to make the score 10-3.
O’Gara kicked the conversion before the hapless Hodgson missed another straightforward kick. Flannery was then sin-binned for an ugly trip on Sale winger Chris Bell, but the Englishmen were unable to fully capitalize with only former All Blacks center Luke McAlister hitting a confident penalty after relieving Hodgson of kicking duties.
Munster, who were worth their 12-6 halftime lead, grabbed their third try of the night after just 30 seconds of the second period when flanker David Wallace stormed through three half-hearted Sale tackles to extend the lead to 17-6. O’Gara popped over the conversion for 19-6, with McAlister replying for Sale with a penalty.
Sale then stunned the home crowd with a try wonderfully set up by replacement scrum-half Dwyane Peel, who had taken over from Richard Wigglesworth. Peel allowed Hodgson to escape his tacklers to go over in the corner to reduce the deficit to 19-14.
But Sale’s hopes of a revival were quickly dashed when Hodgson embarrassingly misjudged an O’Gara punt toward the corner and winger Ian Dowling gleefully accepted the gift to take the score to 24-14, a try that ensured a bonus point. Scrum-half Tomas O’Leary then piled on the misery for Sale with a fifth try for the Irish, while Hodgson’s night came to an early end when he was replaced. Full-back Paul Warwick scored a sixth try in the dying minutes.
Clermont ran in seven tries in their win over Montauban, with French international Pierre Mignoni scoring twice and Julien Malzieu, Loic Jacquet, Alexandre Audebert, Thomas Domingo and John Senio also going over. Australian fly-half Brock James added four conversions.
In Friday’s other match, Edinburgh beat Castres 32-14 in Pool 2, but neither side can pip dominant sides Leinster and Wasps for a last eight spot.