Munster run riot as they exit stage with nine tries
Munster 65 Sale Sharks 10
Foley's men secure record European score against abject Sale outfit at Thomond
MUNSTER emerged from the darkness, blinking and eventually found their stride.
This was as easy as European rugby gets but Anthony Foley's men needed a gentle touch after their mauling at Saracens last week. Nine tries, a record points haul and a lift in the mood was just what the doctor ordered.
It won't soften the pain of looking at the list of quarter-finalists and seeing Leinster there alongside two teams from their own pool, nor will it make April any easier to endure as Europe carries on without them for the first time since 1999.
Anthony Foley described the emotion as "bittersweet", but that was a major upgrade on the simple bitterness of a week previously in north London.
Watching Keith Earls carve open the visiting defence, he must have wondered what might have been had the Moyross flier been involved earlier on in the tournament, similarly the impassioned and well-executed performance from his forward pack came a week too late.
"I had to ask somebody during the week what day it was. It was that bad," Foley said of a difficult week.
"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 and as I say it happens.
"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 so we would be very well protected within our group because you go to UL to CIT and into the training centres and there's not many people from the outside are in contact with you.
"If you want to read the paper you can or if you want to listen to the radio you can turn it on the TV the same and a lot of us wouldn't you just you know you're intelligent people and you're dealing with intelligent people who know we messed up last week. We know we didn't put in a performance.
"We know Clermont home game was the game that ultimately cost us. Clermont away, Saracens away were always going to be difficult to do.
"Within that environment you become closer and you start relying on one another a hell of a lot more because there is no interaction with the outside world basically and from that we had a very stubborn first half performance today into the elements and 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."
Sale's B team brought their A-game for 40 minutes, but couldn't handle the heat after half-time.
They went in just 13-10 at the break, but shipped eight tries without reply in a woeful second-half. Once Earls scored his brilliant effort less than a minute after the resumption, the English side's resistance was broken.
Munster owned the ball and dominated territory, ultimately surpassing the 64 points they racked up against Viadana in Cork back in 2002.
Like that record total, this razzle-dazzle show will soon become a footnote as, though Thomond Park cheered, the reality was the real action was taking place elsewhere as the quarter-final line-up was being decided in Clermont.
It was up to the Munster camp to take the positives and Tommy O'Donnell was pleased with his side's clinical play.
"It's good to see the ruthlessness there, once we saw blood in the water we went for it," he said.
"Backs kept hitting tackles, it was incredible. It was good to be a forward in there as well.
"The faults of last week was we didn't have the ball, and once we had the ball we kept giving it back to Saracens as well.
"So, the focus this week was just on keeping hold of the ball and we went out in the first five minutes. We've known all season how destructive we can be with ball in hand.
"We just have to restrict other teams having the ball, give us as much ball as we can and be as ruthless, as clinical as possible."
The Tipperary native gave an impressive performance before heading for Ireland camp in Carton House where he will hope to secure the No 7 shirt for the Six Nations opener against Italy in two weeks' time.
He was joined by Earls, Simon Zebo and Peter O'Mahony, but Ireland captain Paul O'Connell was in muted form once again even if he kept the error count down.
Munster opened with intent and scored their first try within four minutes as the excellent Ronan O'Mahony scampered up the left, allowing Munster go wide where Ian Keatley combined with Denis Hurley and Earls who fed Zebo to score his first try, stepping inside Tom Arscott and powering through Luke McLean.
Keatley converted and then added a penalty, but Sale - whose representative contingent amounted to two Italian internationals, a Russian and a Tongan against 10 Irish and a Springbok - grew into the game, earning a penalty for Nick MacLeod to get them up and running before his opposite number restored Munster's lead.
The Ireland hopeful won't want to see a replay of what happened next, however, as Sale wing Tom Arscott stepped outside Denis Hurley and then swatted Keatley aside to finish a fine individual score.
MacLeod added the extras and Thomond Park was growing restless as Andrew Conway earned a yellow card for not rolling away, before Keatley kicked the ball dead with a penalty Sale enjoyed a spell of possession.
Munster's defence held strong and a good sustained attack before half-time that ended with a knock-on by the otherwise excellent James Cronin turned out to be a portent of things to come.
Within seconds of the restart, Zebo brilliantly regathered a tipped Duncan Williams box-kick and deft handling from Ivan Dineen freed Earls up the middle.
He had Italy's McLean to beat and did it beautifully, turning the full-back inside and out before scoring.
After their torrid outing at Saracens, the tight-five earned some redemption with a penalty try off the scrum, before Pat Howard - on for the injured Earls - scored off a neat inside ball from Keatley.
A fine Dineen break allowed Zebo score his second try, before Conway got in on the act after some fine work from the full-back.
O'Donnell bullied his way over, before Stephen Archer created a score for Duncan Williams and it was capped off by a lovely combined effort from Zebo, JJ Hanrahan and Conway who raced free to complete the rout.
So, Munster's European campaign came to for 2014/'15 with a facile win over a team who had long lost interest in the competition.
They have a long wait to work out their frustration, but their coach remembers tougher times. It could be worse.
"Ah, I remember being beaten 60 points by Toulouse and coming back on the plane querying where we were going in this competition, a long time ago," he said. "I've been through enough in Munster to understand you've got to dig in, you've got to stay together and once that happens we tend to come out the other end."
Their 10 Ireland squad members made for Carton House, the rest to Lanzarote for a warm-weather camp to prepare for the Pro12 run-in.
Europe will go on without them this year and the task at hand is to make sure that there's no more dead rubbers.
MUNSTER - S Zebo; A Conway, K Earls (P Howard 44), D Hurley (I Dineen 22), R O'Mahony; I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan 69), D Williams; J Cronin (J Ryan 65), D Casey (E Guinazu 66), BJ Botha (S Archer 65); D Foley (B Holland h-t), P O'Connell; Dave O'Callaghan, T O'Donnell, P O'Mahony (P Butler 65).
SALE SHARKS - L McLean; T Brady, A Forsyth, M Jennings, T Arscott; N MacLeod, W Cliff (N Fowles 62); A de Marchi (J Flynn 44), T Taylor (C Neild 62), R Harrison (C Parker 70); A Ostrikov, J Beaumont; M Easter (D Seymour 69), D Seymour (G Nott 62), V Fihaki (A Hughes 52).
ref - M Mitrea (Italy)