Should have known better. Munster don’t do disjointed European Cup displays back-to-back. Yes, Sunday’s game ebbed and flowed, but even when Sale got it back to 16 points apiece, one sensed that the champions wouldn’t founder. And they didn’t.
This was another must-win game for Munster at traditionally too early a juncture in the season to surely merit so fully fleshed a tag.
But given Clermont Auvergne’s narrow win in Montauban ahead of their back-to-back clashes with the province, Sunday’s victory has taken on an altogether greater significance.
For it’s left Munster well and truly in control of their Pool One destiny and there’s no better place to be. Two wins over Clermont, by no means guaranteed it’s worth pointing out, would almost seal the deal before we’re serving cranberry sauce on the side.
By denying Sale a losing bonus point also means that a non-miraculous win over the Sharks in Limerick come the New Year ought to be sufficient for Munster to top their section and start dreaming of two-in-a-row.
But let’s not lose the run of ourselves. There’s little danger that Tony McGahan’s men will.
This was a display not without its flaws – particularly in the scrum and the lineout.
But it was stirring to see how McGahan has got his team interpreting the new laws governing the game to the ‘nth degree’, particularly Alan Quinlan, who is such a master at the breakdown.
Consider this: not too long ago, a Munster team away from home, minus Peter Stringer, Anthony Foley, Shaun Payne, Rua Tipoki and with a lineout not firing on all cylinders, would have been afforded long odds by the bookies. Not now.
McGahan has stuck to his word when it comes to freshening up the team, with Paul Warwick proving outstanding at full-back, Keith Earls getting through a tonne of work in midfield and John O’Sullivan holding his own at seven.
And some seven matches into the season, Munster’s winning record remains intact. Since the great adventure kicked off in Europe a dozen seasons ago, this represents the ERC holders’ best-ever start to a season in the professional era.
And that there is still ample room for improvement from Munster ought to have the other European contenders quaking in their boots.
The two tries registered by Munster were masterfully incepted, all down to a simple sporting nugget: timing. Ronan O’Gara had time aplenty to pull the trigger before drawing the tackle that created an overlap which, via a wonderful pass from Alan Quinlan, set Warwick on his way across the whitewash.
The match-clinching try was all about the delivery of Lifeimi Mafi’s pass to the magnificent David Wallace, playing like a Lion at just the right time.
Sin-binned he may have been, but Mafi was astonishingly good on Sunday. One tackle sent Sebastien Chabal back to an era which matches the Frenchman’s hairstyle – that Mafi’s all-round game improves with every outing is hard to dispute.
While Doug Howlett again demonstrated his defensive brilliance, Ronan O’Gara finished the game masterfully, reminding all and sundry that only Daniel Carter is a more effective number 10 than the Corkman right now.
And there’s little to choose between either outhalf, which makes the prospect of Munster meeting Perpignan in the knock-out stages all the more tantalising given the Kiwi’s short-term move to France.
“That was a big win for us,” said O’Gara. “The performance [against Montauban] wasn’t up to scratch. We were disappointed, as a management and a squad. Tony questioned us and the reaction in the first 40, I thought, was excellent.”
He added: “We went to sleep for a while but Sale were always going to have a purple patch. With 20 minutes to go it was game on and we pulled away in the end.”
On Munster go. And right now, only Stephen Jones of The Sunday Times would bet against them. Suits most of us fine and dandy methinks.
See our ‘me’ Arts and Entertainment section for my review of ‘Axel: A Memoir’