Rugby Union: Sella enters a new world

Paul Trow meets a Frenchman aiming to light up Twickenham today legend aiming to
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The Independent Online
After an international career spanning 13 years and 111 games, Philippe Sella could be forgiven for taking his rugby a little less seriously nowadays. But the 34-year-old centre, who captains the World XV in the Sanyo Cup match against Leicester at Twickenham this afternoon, refuses to allow retirement to diminish his commitment to a sport that is "so much a vital part of my being".

Sella may have bowed out at the highest level - though the word is that France would definitely have selected him this season had he been available - but his appetite for a testing challenge remains unquenched, hence his enterprising decision to play for Saracens next season.

His fee for a one-year contract is in the region of pounds 100,000, but in the view of the club's benefactor, Nigel Wray, it is money well spent. "Philippe is a nice bloke. That is very important to me," said Wray, who clearly also relishes the prospect of Sella linking up with the former Australian captain Michael Lynagh.

Not only will his family - wife Josie, daughter Philippine (10) and son Geoffrey (3) - move with him to London, but so will his business, Sella Communications, which organises management and motivational seminars.

"My life will undergo a big change, but I'm not coming over just to improve my English," Sella said. "I'm looking forward to the whole challenge - physically, commercially and professionally - and I want to test myself in a new context. Rugby is a state of mind and it's impossible to narrow it down to one thing. Sure, there's conviviality in the game, but above all else there's the desire to prepare well, play hard, go all out to win and give of yourself for the whole team."

France's fitful displays in its first Sella-less Five Nations' campaign since 1982 must therefore have been quite hard to bear. "The French only really fulfil themselves on tour. When you're away, you can concentrate properly, work together and focus. In the championship, we're often distracted and lose games we should win. Despite that, we still had a chance of the title in Wales but we didn't take it.

"The Five Nations is a unique tournament and will survive its latest problems. But apart from our last Grand Slam in 1987, my outstanding memories with France are from two tours - in 1993 in South Africa when we won one Test and drew the other, and the following year in New Zealand when we beat the All Blacks in both internationals.

"I have no regrets about missing out on the professional era except that I never had as much time to prepare myself for important matches as I would have wished. I always had the distractions of worrying about my family and job responsibilities."

Preparations by the World XV, who only began to assemble under the aegis of the former Australian coach Bob Dwyer last Thursday, have not exactly been thorough. Sella acknowledges that today's contest is an opportunity for his scratch team, culled from nine different countries, to revel in "a match of pleasure, express themselves and do some lovely things". But he will also "be giving 100 per cent because I have always given 100 per cent whoever I have played for".

The world's most capped player may no longer be in a position to give 100 per cent for his country, but his dedication to Agen, the club he first represented as a teenager, remains undimmed. "We're having a good season and face Dijon in the last 16 of the French championship next weekend. It's like a family in Agen and all the people I have played with over the years are my friends."

Agen is grateful for such loyalty and companionship, and will give its favourite son a gala send-off in a testimonial game on 6 July before he joins Saracens. "It's extraordinary how a whole town can get so caught up with me finishing my career," he said. Sella may not come cheap, but French rugby is convinced that Saracens have got a bargain.