Munster 31 Sale 9: The hordes of Hades gorge on Sale's flesh

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The best of them, as ever, were Munster, who go from one Ice Age to another without losing a major European game in these parts. "When you have our kind of home record, who wants to be a part of the team that lets it slip?" asked Anthony Foley, their captain, whose part in Sale's downfall was very nearly as considerable as his 17st 7lb frame. It was a reasonable point. Foley lives in County Clare these days, but he is Limerick born and bred and celebrates the fact with every fibre of his being. You can tell by the way he plays.

Those Munster forwards not born within the confines of "Stab City", as the place is often branded, tend to hail from Cork, which amounts to the same thing as far as Sale are concerned. It was difficult to condemn the visitors for not recognising the fine distinction between the two, for by the end of this right royal seeing-to they were not remotely in a condition to know their arses from their elbows, let alone their Moycarkeys from their Loughtagallas. If they never come back here, it will be way too soon.

Sale now know precisely how Gloucester felt back in 2003. The West Countrymen had travelled here at the same time of year and in much the same confident frame of mind, that confidence underpinned by their leadership of both the Premiership and their Heineken Cup pool. Munster required a four-try victory to qualify for the knock-out stage; all Gloucester needed to do was keep their wits about them for 80 minutes. This they failed to manage, and they found themselves out of the tournament as a result. Sale, by contrast, are still in the competition. But instead of securing a home tie, they have lumbered themselves with a quarter-final trip to Biarritz. To all intents and purposes, they have gone the same way as their predecessors.

It was not until the second minute of injury time that David Wallace, one of the great lost talents of Irish rugby, capped a marvellous performance on the open-side flank by picking up from the base of Shaun Payne's ruck and touching down for Munster's fourth try, which earned them the Pool and condemned Sale to a quarter-final on the road. But in truth, the home side had it about them from the moment they started the first-half fighting. (Step forward Jerry Flannery of Galwey, a hooker who knows how, and when, to use his fists.)

They scored three tries in the first half, and if two of them owed something to good fortune - Sale's mauler-in-chief, the Argentinian lock Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, was in the sin-bin when Foley claimed the opener from a driving line-out, while the excellent Barry Murphy could not have bargained either for the freakish deflection of Ronan O'Gara's kick or the embarrassing lack of defensive communication between Jason Robinson and Daniel Larrechea as he ran in unmolested from halfway - the sheer ferocity with which the home side set about their work made them good value for their 24-9 lead.

A rough game throughout - Denis Leamy appeared to claim that Epi Taione had bitten him on the arm, although an offended Taione pleaded not guilty afterwards - the fire and fury exposed Sale in the one thing that may undermine their best season in living memory: a transparent lack of leadership. Sébastien Chabal could not conceivably have applied himself with greater determination or soaked up more punishment, but what is one man against the hordes of Hades? And anyway, he is French. How could he even begin to offer the kind of guidance that would have saved Sale's collective skin?

Andrew Sheridan, Chris Jones, Magnus Lund - these are quality players, although the latter was given the run-around by Wallace. But leaders of men? Not in a month of Sundays. As for Jason White, the current Scotland captain... suffice to say he did not have the best of nights. He seemed too quiet by half. When O'Gara placed a hostile boot dangerously near the flanker's unmentionables, he failed to raise so much as a finger in protest. Discipline is one thing, pacifism quite another.

Philippe Saint-André, the Sale coach, did not for a moment seek to deny the majesty of the Munster effort, but he did not attempt to conceal Sale's deficiencies either.

"This tells us where we stand," he said, bluntly. "Did the environment take us by surprise? Perhaps. It should not have done, but maybe it was so. Now, we must reflect on what happened to us and learn from the experience."

As experiences go, the young centre Murphy will treasure it for ever and a day. "I watched the game against Gloucester and stood in front of the stand when the players came out on the balcony for a chorus of 'Athenry'," he recalled.

"I wished I could have been a part of it; now I know what it's like. And do you know? I can see my house from that balcony."

Munster: Tries Foley, Dowling, Murphy, Wallace; Conversions O'Gara 4; Penalty O'Gara. Sale: Penalties Hodgson 3.

Munster: S Payne (M Lawlor, 80); J Kelly, B Murphy, T Halstead, I Dowling; R O'Gara, P Stringer (T O'Leary 80); M Horan (F Pucciariello 80), J Flannery (D Fogerty 80), J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (M O'Driscoll 80), D Leamy, D Wallace, A Foley (capt; Pucciariello 39-40, S Keogh 80).

Sale: D Larrechea; M Cueto, M Taylor, E Seveali'i (E Taione, 26), J Robinson (capt); C Hodgson, S Martens (R Wigglesworth, 48); A Sheridan, S Bruno (A Titterrell, 59), B Stewart (B Coutts, 64), I Fernandez Lobbe (D Schofield, 59), C Jones (C Mayor, 70), J White, M Lund, S Chabal.

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).