Sella anticipates French restoration

The world's most-capped player expects to be on the winning side in his 110th Test for France. Ian Borthwick reports
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The Independent Online
You might think that after 109 Tests for France, Philippe Sella would be sick of journalists and their insistent questioning. But the other evening at the Pretoria Holiday Inn, while his team-mates played ping-pong or lined up for another massage from the physio, the world's most-capped player spent over an hour with the media replying with the same simplicity and openness which has characterised his long career.

"Being a top-level sportsman is not all beer and skittles. There are joys and pleasures, but there are also duties. I am just trying to be an honest sportsman," he says, by way of explanation.

Although his famous fringe is far from having regained its original state, Sella's hair is regrowing rapidly after the mass tonsorial adventure at the beginning of the tournament. "We are aiming to stay on here as long as possible and to play in the final," he said. "That way, by the time I get home my hair will look more respectable and I'll be able to face my children." At the beginning of the World Cup, however it looked as though all the French would be returning home with their heads still bare. They looked jittery and unconvincing in the pool matches, dangerous as ever but only intermittently, and they only scraped home against Scotland in the last seconds.

To date, Sella's World Cup campaign, like that of the French XV in general, has lacked any real glitter and compared to the three other semi-finalists the Tricolores have had what can only be called a mediocre build-up. "At times we have functioned well: against Scotland the backs looked good and against Ireland the forwards seem to come into their own. But we have yet to produce a good all-round performance," Sella said, adding that his role in this World Cup has been more defensive than offensive.

"So far I have spent more time touching flesh than leather, so the desire to express myself with the ball in hand is even greater than usual. All my concentration will be centred on my desire to touch the ball, even if it is PVC, more often than I have in the last three games."

The feeling in the French camp as they prepare for tomorrow's semi-final against South Africa is that things are now about to change and that, in the same way as they gradually built up to a crescendo on their last two overseas tours to South Africa and New Zealand, things are finally beginning to fall into place.

Their coach, Pierre Berbizier, estimated after last weekend's victory over Ireland that in terms of fitness and cohesion they were at exactly the same level as when, in a game which first revealed the French ability to finish with a flourish, they narrowly beat New Zealand B in Wanganui last year. "There are just a few tiny things missing which will enable us to regale ourselves on the field of play," Sella said. "Of course we are not entirely happy with our progress so far but we all know we can do better, and we are all very much aware of what this team is capable of producing."

He refers to the victories over New Zealand in '94, and when pushed on the subject of beating South Africa at home, he recalls with evident pleasure France's semi-final win in the 1987 World Cup when, with a stunning change of direction he wrong-footed the whole Australian back-line to score a crucial try under the posts. That game remains one of his most precious memories in a long and illustrious career. "I'd like to play the same sort of game. We are not expected to win, but nobody ever expected us to beat Australia in Australia eight years ago either. We can still improve by about 30 per cent on our previous performances, whereas I believe the three other semi-finalists are already very close to their maximum."

The solution, for Sella, is to play the game at pace and to put France's steadily increasing physical fitness to use by moving the ball wide and fast and stretching the Springbok lines of defence to breaking point. "The key word is pace. That's what we are going to be working on all week: speed of thought, speed of execution, speed of expression. In everything we do, everything we undertake, speed is the leitmotif. If we can do that, and maintain some continuity, I'm sure we can upset the South Africans."

Playing in his 110th Test match, Sella says he will prepare for it as he always does. Calm, concentrated, he speaks very seldom in the team build-up before the game, but when he does, his words are treated like pearls by his reverential team-mates. "I don't say much, I just observe a lot. And I only speak when I feel I have to. I am confident in my own ability, and in fulfilling the role I have on the field, but at this stage in my career my real motivation comes from my fear of disappointing the others. So I try to see how I can be the most useful for my team."

As for Saturday's match, which Francois Pienaar called perhaps the most important match ever for South African rugby, Sella and his team-mates are aware of what awaits them at King's Park, Durban. "We know it's going to be a great battle. And we know that it will be in front of 60,000 South Africans desperate to see their team in the final. But once we get out on to the field it will be 15 against 15 and all the tactics in the world will count for nothing. It's a game which will be won by guts. Eighty minutes of heart and guts and we know we have got it in us."