Sale Sharks got their European Challenge Cup campaign off to a flying start with a 49-6 win over Montpellier on Friday et Edgeley Park.
After an edgy first half, in which both teams relied on the boot to gain the territory, and on a devilish wind whose gusts bemused the full-backs to spring surprises, Sale led 9-6.
With the clock already past the 40-minute mark though, Charlie Hodgson reminded us all of how sorely England might have missed him at the World Cup, a 50m run returning a lose kick and sparking a scintillating interplay between himself, Mark Cueto, and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, before taking the latter's pass to score near the posts.
Sale thus went into the dressing rooms a comfortable 16-6 ahead, where before even 9-6 had seemed a touch harsh on the visitors. It proved a mortal wound to Montpellier, and the Sharks never looked back, running in five unanswered tries in the second half.
Montpellier came into this game having lost their last 35 matches away from home, an astonishing record even for one of the smaller French clubs. Relegation from the Top 14 has never been far away from the door.
This season though, they have a gleaming new stadium which Australia used as a base for their World Cup campaign, they have a little more cash, and a clutch of new signings and promising young players.
So it ought not to have been such a surprise at how well they fronted up to Sale's physical challenge. Despite having only 34 per cent of the first-half possession, the HÃ©raults fought gamely, with Julien Picamoles - on as an early replacement for Fulgence Ouedraogo - turning over stacks of Sale possession on the fringes.
Montpellier did well at the line-outs too, nicking three out of nine of Sebastian Bruno's throws. Maybe they found Bruno's Franglais calls easier to decipher.
Either way, that stream of lost possession hindered any progress by the Sharks, whose backs looked livelier and whose forwards were streets ahead in the scrum, but who just could not find a way through Montpellier's white shirts.
The closest they came before Hodgson's try was courtesy of Hodgson's counter-attacking instincts. A return from another Sarramea kick was off-loded to Cueto, and then to Elvis Seveali'i before the ball was flung wide to Ben Foden.
Foden appeared to have done enough as he raced home through a tackle, but the TMO saw his right foot just nicking the touchline before the ball was plonked down in-goal.
Otherwise, it was a drab first half. Montpellier, with the wind mostly behind them, slammed the ball downfield through Olivier Sarramea and FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc. Hodgson used the wind to hold up and swirl any number of assorted high kicks and garryowens. The tactics worked for both teams, with Montpellier's line rarely under threat and the greenness of Foden at full-back often exposed, but with their own full-back Mark McHugh never looking comfortable either.
Only twice did Hodgson opt for profitable adventure: an inside pop to Chabal yielding a trademark 20m charge subsequently ruined by a clumsy knock-on, and another inside pop to Cueto delayed just a fraction too long for the winger to be able to cut through at full pace.
Motnpellier also had their moments. Rickus Lubbe and Picamoles combined to send the latter through the Sale defensive line like a crossbow bolt, and had Sebastian Buada not fumbled the offload, Montpellier might have snatched a lead.
Between minutes 16 and 18, a monumental defensive effort pushed Sale's attackers back from the 22 to the half-way line. 6-0 down after 20 minutes through two Hodgson penalties, the Heraults had clawed their way back to 6-6 just five minutes before half-time through two McHugh penalties and their sterling defensive efforts at the breakdown.
Then came another Hodgson penalty, then Hodgson's moment of magic, and the French heads went down, never to really come back up again.
Andrew Sheridan and Stuart Turner had been making mincemeat out of a beefy Montpellier front row all night, and once they were presented with an attacking scrum on 52 minutes, you couild see it coming. The first scrum was called at a penalty, and yielded another penalty. The second collapsed under Sale pressure. The third yielded another scrum as Richard Wigglesworth just failed to get to the line. The fourth yielded a free-kick, and Chabal tapped, ducked, and drove over. Hodgson converted to make it 23-6.
Two minutes later, the game was up, as Trinh-Duc's loose pass was picked off by Steve Hanley, Hodgson converting from under the posts for a 30-6 scoreline, and any pretence at resistance from Montpellier evaporated.
It quickly became one-way traffic, Sale eventually having 70 per cent of the second-half possession and their forwards finding it easier and easier to brush Montpellier's off the ball.
Replacement centre Chris Mayor barged through some flagging tackling for the bonus-point fourth try, with Hodgson making the only blot on his man-of-the-match copybook by missing the conversion.
Wigglesworth rounded off a cracking interplay between himself and the ubiquitous Cueto/Fernandez Lobbe support duo with five to go for the fifth, and then wriggled through some statuesque defence for the sixth try in the final minute. Lee Thomas converted both.
For Sale Sharks:
Tries: Hodgson, Chabal, Hanley, Mayor, Wigglesworth 2
Cons: Hodgson 3, Thomas 2
Pens: Hodgson 3
Pens: McHugh 2
Sale Sharks: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Mark Cueto, 13 Elvis Seveali'i, 12 Lee Thomas, 11 Steve Hanley, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 SÃ©bastien Chabal, 7 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, 6 Jason White, 5 Sean Cox, 4 Ignancio Fernandez Lobbe, 3 Stuart Turner, 2 Sebastien Bruno, 1 Andrew Sheridan
Replacements: 16 Neil Briggs, 17 BenoÃ®t Bourrust, 18 Dean Schofield, 19 Nathan Bonner-Evans, 20 Sililo Martens, 21 Chris Mayor, 22 Chris Bell
Montpellier: 15 Mark McHugh, 14 Olivier SarramÃ©a, 13 Rickus Lubbe, 12 Grant Rees, 11 Frikkie Welsh, 10 Francois Trinh Duc, 9 SÃ©bastien Buada, 8 Didier Chouchan, 7 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 6 SÃ©bastien Galtier, 5 Drickus Hancke, 4 Michel Macurdy, 3 ClÃ©ment BaÃ¯occo, 2 Olivier DiomandÃ© (c), 1 PhilÃ©mon Toleafoa
Replacements: 16 Joan Caudullo, 17 EugÃ¨ne Van Staden, 18 MickaÃ«l Bert, 19 Louis Picamoles, 20 Julien Tomas, 21 Murphy Taele, 22 FÃ©dÃ©rico Todeschini
Referee: Carlo Damasco (Italy)
Touch judges: Paulo Ventura (Italy), Stefano Marrama (Italy)
Assessor: Colin High (England)