Normal service was resumed at Thomond Park as Munster ran six tries past Sale Sharks to secure their place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the 11th successive season.
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 in the Limerick rain.
First-half tries 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 scrum half 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 number 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 fired 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 at 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 the back of a close range scrum, O’Leary took the ball on and 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 1 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.