Rugby Union: Sella stands out in every sense: Ian Borthwick reports from Paris on the centre set to be the world's most capped player Today's second Test against the Wallabies is a milestone for one great Frenchman

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE can be few greater distinctions in any sport than letting one player run out alone on to the pitch before an international. But today in Paris, for the vital second Test between France and Australia, both teams - unknown to the player in question - have agreed to accord the signal honour to the French No 13.

Philippe Sella, respected throughout the world as one of the greatest centres ever to grace a rugby field, today reaches the historic milestone of 94 caps. No other player has played more Tests for his country. The remarkable thing about Sella, however, is not so much his survival of 12 seasons of international rugby, but how he manages after such a remarkable career to retain the freshness and enthusiasm of a 19-year-old.

In short, the world record is not an end in itself. It is little more than a passing phase as the 31-year-old shows no sign of slowing down and has every intention of getting to the 100- mark. And on to the 1995 World Cup. 'Of course, reaching this milestone is important to me. Just as it was important last week when I equalled Serge Blanco's record. But in no way am I obsessed by it. I shall remember my 93rd cap because we beat Australia, and I hope to remember my 94th for the same reason.'

Sella's objectives are purely in terms of sporting success - not in terms of racking up the numbers and reaching a total number of caps which many believe will never be approached. As a measure of this achievement in terms of world rugby, Rory Underwood is the most capped Englishman with 60.

Strangely, Sella has never enjoyed the wide celebrity of Blanco or of David Campese, his opponent today, partly because he is reserved and unassuming and partly because his game is based on unequalled consistency and lionhearted dependability; as much on impeccable defence and tireless support play as on any traditional French attacking genius.

He is in short the keystone which supported the arch of French back play throughout the 1980s, and the Tricolours' elder statesman guiding them through a new period of success. 'I am no star. I'm not the sort who likes to make waves,' he said. 'I'll give what I have to give, but being in the limelight or drawing attention to myself is not my style.'

In all things, Sella's style, to be more precise, is to be that uncomplicated authentic country lad who remains faithful to what he calls his 'peasant' origins. Indeed, he gives much of the credit for his uncommon natural strength to the long hours of physical toil on his parents' farm in his youth.

On their modest 70 acres, near Agen, the Sellas bred ducks and geese for the inevitable foie gras and confit so characteristic of the region. But mainly they had fields of grain, potatoes, and 120,000 tobacco plants which it was the young Philippe's job to hand-pick every year just before the rugby season started. 'I had no need for bodybuilding, weightlifting, or any gyms. I was naturally fit and bursting with energy.'

Every summer for two and a half months, Philippe was in charge of the antiquated irrigation system long before the days of PVC and automatic watering. Day in and day out it involved manhandling heavy metal pipes, shifting them about the fields, lifting them above his head so as not to damage the Gitanes-destined leaves.

This boundless energy, this infectious enthusiasm, have remained with him throughout his career. 'On the field he is like a lion for 80 minutes,' Franck Mesnel, his former midfield partner, said. 'It was as if he had a motor running at 20,000 revs, continually in the red. But Philippe has never known any half-measures. When he gives himself, he gives everything.'

How then does he manage to maintain such levels of performance and to work himself up for every game? 'The laws of nature mean that I am not as fast as I was 10 years ago,' he reasoned. 'I may have lost a few 10ths of seconds in a straight sprint. But through my experience I have also gained a few more 10ths in my vision of the game and the execution of the odd technique.'

No, he says, attaining the required levels of concentration and motivation is not a problem. 'Of course, it is not the same as when I first started. But I still feel the tension before a big game. When you know you're playing against the best in the world there is no difficulty in getting motivated. The unknown quantity of a game still exists to the same degree and that's what helps keeps me fresh. Every game is an eternal recommencement. You still never know just how far you can go.'

So when the country lad looks down the tunnel today before being left to run alone on to the Parc de Princes, he will still feel the same attraction for the 'magic rectangle'. 'That is the only drug I need,' he said. 'The game itself helps me retain my freshness. It's above all the desire to run across the green turf and pass a ball around with a few mates. A reminder of how good it feels to be alive.'

(Photograph omitted)