Rugby Union: Sella reaches for century

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PHILIPPE SELLA, the French centre, is destined to become world rugby's first player to gain 100 caps when he steps out against the All Blacks in the first Test in Christchurch tomorrow.

Last November, Sella overtook his countryman Serge Blanco's record of 93 caps, but it was a less memorable occasion than he had hoped. His achievement that day was honoured before a Test against Australia at Parc des Princes and the tourists subsequently spoiled his day by winning 24-3.

'We made a big mistake,' Sella said. 'All the celebrations before the match took our concentration away. There was too much emotion and we didn't have a clear mind. I won't be caught out twice.'

Sella, 32, said he derived most satisfaction from team success. 'The real pleasure comes from being there, knowing that I can still perform at this level and be part of the winning team,' he said. 'For me, the etiquette of rugby is essentially the team spirit. Each player must perform individually to his optimum level in order to contribute to the team effort.'

Sella has been the rock of French rugby. While other players have come and gone, while politics have infected the sporting body, coaches have wrangled and presidents have schemed, Sella has always been there, a player's player.

That he was sent off in the 18-14 surprising loss to Canada three weeks ago was highly uncharacteristic. 'That was a disastrous game for us. It hurt me very deeply,' said the player who attributes his longevity to training patterns which permit him to peak at the right time.

Sella played rugby league for the village of Clairac before converting to rugby union and swept into the Agen development system. Besides playing centre for France he has also appeared at full-back and wing for his country.

One of his biggest disappointments was the 1991 World Cup quarter-final loss to England in Paris. 'There was too much argument off the field and our minds were not on the game,' Sella recalled. Victories, though, outweigh the defeats: 61 of them to 34 and four draws over a 12-year period in which French rugby hit the heights and then descended deep into the mire.

Nor has Sella always been in favour. There was a little falling out with the coach Pierre Berbizier two years ago, but the rift was mended. That, Sella said, kicked his game along. 'It was one of the best things that happened to me. I was left at home when the team toured Argentina and I had time to think.'