The exemplar of longevity, Philippe Sella performed in the top flight at club and international level until he was well into his thirties. The Frenchman was, until recently, the world record holder for international appearances, having picked up 111 caps for the national side between 1982 and 1995.
However, Sella wasn’t just there to make up the numbers. Located at the heart of the midfield, Sella was a phenomenal Centre who chipped in with a fair few points alongside his consistently impressive defensive work. Indeed, to date, Sella is one of very few individuals to have touched down for a try in every match of a Five Nations season.
Described by former coach, Jacques Fouroux, as having the ‘strength of a bull but the touch of a piano player’, Sella will be remembered as one of the greatest to pull on the blue jersey.
Getting into the international game
Born in Tonneins on February 14th 1962 to farming parents, Sella’s rugby career really got going at the age of 20 when he moved to the-then dominant Sporting Union Agen Lot et Garonne in 1982. His impact on the team was immediate, as SU Agen won the title that season and remained one of the top sides in the country, finishing as runners-up in 1984 and 1986 before winning the title again in 1988.
Sella’s importance in this palpably successful era was clear for all to see and, such was the respect that his club had for him, a trophy was remarkably named after him in the future. From his very first year though, Sella’s abilities were noted by Jacques Fouroux and he was fast tracked through to the national side almost immediately, making his international debut against Romania in November.
Sella walked into a winning squad, with the French having clinched their third Grand Slam in 1981, including a famous victory against England at Twickenham. This didn’t stop Sella though and, despite a disappointing performance in 1982, the French bounced back to pick up the 1982 Five Nations Championship with Ireland.
Riding the crest of the French wave
With the World Cup only established later, the Five Nations remained the key competition in the northern hemisphere and, with Sella an integral part of the national side, the French went on to dominate most of the 1980s.
The side picked up the Championship four further times that decade in consecutive years between 1986 and 1989, including one Grand Slam victory in 1987. That Grand Slam included one classic moment at Twickenham for Sella personally.
With the French under serious pressure from a hungry England side, Sella made a remarkable interception and ran a full 70 yards with the ball to touch down for the French and secure the game.
In 1987, France competed in the inaugural World Cup. The competition was a fine one for the French and Sella in particular. Scoring tries in the pool stages against Scotland and Romania, Sella then contributed a critical try in France’s heart-stopping 30-24 victory against the Australians in the semi-final. Although France would go on to lose the final to hosts New Zealand, Sella’s prominent status in the world game was advertised once again.
Slowing down in the nineties
Although the 1980s were easily Sella’s finest period in club and international rugby, he remained an important figure in both, right through to his retirement. For France, he continued to contribute crunching tackles – described by Jeremy Guscott as like being hit by a telephone box on the end of a crane – and pressure tries.
Despite a decidedly less impressive performance in the 1991 World Cup, where the French went out to England in the quarter-finals, Sella still enjoyed some success with the national side. The highlight of the decade came in 1993, when the side rolled back the years to pick up the Five Nations Championship. However, the years were starting to catch up with him and eventually, in 1995, Sella hung up his blue jersey, but not before setting that incredible mark of 111 caps (including five as captain), with 31 tries coming in those matches.
The world record was eventually beaten over a decade later by England’s Jason Leonard, who was then overtaken by Australia’s George Gregan.
After finishing in the international form, Sella decided to make a change in his club career. Leaving SU Agen after 13 years of truly marvellous service, Sella made the trip across the Channel to Saracens in 1996.
Sadly, his appearances were restricted and, over the course of two seasons, he managed to turn out in the black and white jersey just 14 times. Nevertheless, such was Sella’s standing in the game that the move turned heads and put bums on seats at Vicarage Road Stadium, helping the club kick on to their current status.
He also had time to make a decisive mark on the club when he scored a fantastic try in the Tetley’s Bitter Cup final in 1998 which set Saracens on their way to their first trophy, beating Wasps 48-18.
This was a fitting way to end Sella’s career and, although he had certainly enjoyed a long spell in the game, he knew it was time to move on. After the 1998 season, Sella announced his retirement in all forms of the game and moved back to France.
Although he had moved on from the rugby pitch, Sella has remained a prominent part of French rugby, albeit behind a microphone. He is now a commentator on French television’s Canal+ station. Outside these duties, Sella also runs ‘Les Enfants de L’Ovale’, which provides a mixture of education and rugby for kids in the country. With such a legend of the game in charge, this association has gone from strength to strength and now educates hundreds of children nationwide.