The Monday Interview: Sella enthralled by vision of championship swan-song with Saracens

Click to follow
The Independent Online
At the age of 36, one of rugby union's greatest ever backs has decided to fight time no longer and bow out at the end of the season.

Saracens, with whom he is spending his twilight years, will have particular cause to regret his retirement.

Philippe Sella shakes his head, slaps his leg and laughs as he recalls the jokes at his French expense since he joined Saracens at the start of last season on a crusade that has seen the club rise to joint leadership of the English Premier League.

"I remember first arriving at the car park in Southgate," he says, sitting on the edge of an armchair in his neat town house in London's Swiss Cottage. "Just about the only English word I could say was `yes'. I met Kyran Bracken first and he started to ask me lots of questions, like did I find the ground OK, and is my family over here with me. All I could say each time was `Yes'.

"After about eight questions Kyran then said: `Are you gay?' I said `Yes,' and he fell about laughing. Then I realised what I had said. That's when I also learnt how to say no. After that I always found it difficult to say his first name. I made it sound like `Karen'. After a few weeks he came up to me and said: `Look, my name is Kyran, not Karen, OK!'

Sella laughs again. "Oh, I will miss the family at Saracens."

Indeed he will. The holder of a world-beating 111 international caps announced recently that he will be retiring from the game at the end of this season, having already bowed out of international rugby two years ago.

At the ripe old age of almost 36 years, a combination of his body and his flourishing Anglo-French business commitments with Sella Communications will make it impossible for one of the greatest backs of all time to continue to play, at least at the level that he wants to be remembered.

"This is why I quit international rugby," he explains, in an accent that makes Inspector Clouseau seem English in comparison. "It was a good time to end it, with a lot of caps and memories. I wanted to make the decision, not the French selectors. I realised that I couldn't make the commitment necessary for international rugby and work on expanding my business interests.

"It wasn't too hard because I still had my club rugby to enjoy. When Saracens contacted me it provided me with a new challenge. I wanted to learn English, and as I had never left Agen before, my life had become too comfortable. It's been great fun, but now I realise my time is nearly up."

Behind him, as he speaks, are photographs adorning the walls of the longer-haired Sella in his French jerseys, the Sella we mostly remember, with his flowing locks and flowing runs that left defences in tatters. It only seems the other day that he was destroying the opposition, but time has finally been called on him.

"I am playing OK still," he insists. "But I am noticing that it is taking me longer to recover. If I played next season I would be expected to play in the league, in the Cup and in Europe, as well as concentrate on my business. I just don't think I can do it. And I don't want to be a poor player. I want people to remember me as a player at the top. But it will be hard to leave rugby, very hard indeed. Rugby is in my blood."

His time at Sarries, regardless of what happens between now and the end of the season, has been a great success. Despite his standing in the game Sella, like his notable team-mates, Michael Lynagh and Francois Pienaar, has ensured that he has become just one of the team. "It was very important to me," he says.

"We are one family at Saracens, and we all respect each other. I did not expect any special treatment, and I have not received any either. That's good. It would be very special if we can end the season with a cup, not just for me, but for the team. The league would be, how do you say, the icing on the cake, but it will be difficult. The champions will come from either us, Newcastle, Leicester or Bath, I think, and we must hope for some luck. But I will return to France a happy man with a great experience behind me."

Despite early teething problems - "It used to take me an hour and a half to drive to Southgate. In Agen it took me five minutes to the ground" - Sella has settled into London life. "I like it where I live, and I often go to Primrose Hill or Regent's Park to play with my two children, and to walk with my wife.

"In many ways I prefer London to Paris," he admits. "People have more respect for each other in London. They are friendlier, and they are nicer to children. Even the drivers are more polite."

He will return to his farmhouse in Agen after what he hopes will be his farewell appearance, in the Sanyo Cup game at Twickenham in May between the English champions and a world select XV. Back home, where he played his domestic rugby throughout his long and illustrious career, the man is treated like a hero. Is he proud of his world record?

"It represents my life," he said. "I never aimed to accumulate so many caps, but I loved the game so much that I stayed focused on ensuring that I would be in the next side. Of course, I'm very proud to have played so many times for my country, but it has also given me my life."

And if his record were to go one day? "I would be there, in the stadium, to see the man break the record. I would then shake his hand because it would mean that he has also had a wonderful life. I would appreciate what he has done, and that he and I would be brothers."

His new-found fondness for the English language, life and game means that he has a great appreciation of the strength of English rugby. He describes, for example, England's last outing, in that memorable Twickenham draw against the All Blacks in one, typical word: "Beautiful."

But, with the French meeting England on Saturday, in what will probably be the deciding encounter of this year's Five Nations' tournament, it has also left him an anxious partisan. "My heart, of course, tells me that France will win," he says. Then he taps his head. "But up here I am very worried."

His concerns stem from two sources: England's "beautiful" display against New Zealand, and France's record defeat at home to the rampaging Springboks. "We were very, very bad that day," he argues, frowning in an exaggerated Gallic way. "We had no defence, and no basics. Our spirit was individual, not collective.

"We forgot about our defence and conceded a lot of tries. If you do that, then it's difficult to score. You must have a good defence first. A good defence results in a good attack. And you must play not for 50 minutes, like the Irish often do, but for 80 minutes, like England against New Zealand."

After losing seven on the trot, the French have bounced back to win their last three games against England. This, coupled with a first appearance at the brand new, 80,000-capacity Stade de France, built for this summer's football World Cup, might have given the French the edge, but Sella does not believe these ingredients are enough, at least not judging by their pre-Christmas form.

"I am sure France will play with more passion against England," he says. "We must, or we will lose. We will have a new team, a new chance, and it has to be taken. If England play like they did against the All Blacks, then it will be very hard for us. It will be close, I think, but the French will have to get it right from the first whistle until the last."

The consequences of defeat, according to Sella, do not bear thinking about. "It will be seen to be a disaster," he says. "One defeat is OK, two is just about endured, but three losses in a row and ..." He does not finish his sentence as he contemplates such horrors.

"We would then have to go to Murrayfield, a ground that is rarely kind to us. It would help our confidence a lot if we go there having beaten England. We will then face Ireland in Paris. Ireland in Paris are not the same as Ireland in Dublin, but our last game will be at Wembley against Wales. They have Gibbs, Bateman, good rugby league backs." A grim smile spreads across his face. "So, my friend, we have to beat England."

Of course, back at Saracens, Sella faces flak whatever happens. "Last year, when we beat the English, I stayed quiet in the dressing-room. But I know if England win this time, there will be lots of jokes at me."

For the time being his colleagues make do with calling him Fifi, after Lynagh overheard one of Sella's French colleagues refer to him as Phi Phi after an invitational match. "That's what Philippe is often called in France," insists Sella. "But I understand a man cannot be called it here, non?"

If England do overcome the French, you can be sure that Saracens will come up with a new nickname for him.