Philippe Sella – the best French center and one of the best of all time

Everything that is brilliant about French rugby is exemplified by its greatest centre, Philippe Sella.

The incisive running lines, strong defense and athleticism have been fundamental to Sella’s game in thirteen consecutive international seasons. He was a wonderful player to watch and over time formed great center partnerships with Didier Codorniou, Denis Charvet, Marc Andrieu, Franck Mesnel and Thierry Lacroix.

Remarkably, Sella amassed 111 caps in his career, which was a record until it was surpassed by England’s Jason Leonard. He became the first player to earn 100 caps and is one of only five players to score a try in every game during a five-nation season.

Sella’s times were straightforward and his main goals were playing with a rugby ball and sharing it with his team-mates, nothing more. A simple formula can often be more beneficial than the overly complicated rugby we see today.

There’s no better way to illustrate French flair than the ‘End of the World’ try scored against the All Blacks at Eden Park in 1994. Sella played in that sweeping move that led to a team attempt, inspired by a great pass from Jean-Luc Sadourny. As they say, when the French are on, they’re on!

If you’re feeling a little down about rugby in general, just put on a highlights reel of French rugby and it’ll soon cheer you up. There were plenty of brilliant French defenders but it was a remarkable achievement from Sella to play consistently at the highest level for thirteen seasons.

Born in Tonneins, France in 1962, Sella started his football career as a rugby league player before joining Union. His natural toughness came with his rural upbringing and his early club career was spent at Agen from 1982-1995. He made his debut for France against Romania in 1982 when a new star realized his potential.

When the professional era began, Sella joined Saracens Rugby Club in England in 1996 along with Australian Michael Lynagh. The two encouraged younger players to join the club. His trademark rugby experience, vision and defense were deployed at Saracens.

Recognized as the world’s best center of the 1980s and 1990s, Sella was famously described by Jacques Fouroux as having “the strength of a bull but the feel of a pianist”. My favorite attempt was his interception against England in 1987, when he went past the last two defenders on his way to a 70-yard shot. A faint light may be that he flattened Australian lock Peter Fitzsimons from behind during an ugly brawl in 1990.

Former French rugby player Phillippe Sella (Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

All Black fans have great respect for the Frenchman, and it’s not surprising that Sella cites the 1987 World Cup Final and a streak win over the All Blacks in 1994 as his career highlights. I can bet the amateur days in international rugby went well for Philippe Sella, as memories of previous players, countries visited and moments shared made for complacency.

His last game for France was against England at the 1995 Rugby World Cup and his full retirement came in 1998 when he returned to France from the Saracens aged 36.

Sella became a member of the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 1999 and was inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame in 2008. He has worked as a PE teacher, managed the France U20 team and was a regular face on French TV channel Kanal+.

Three Rugby World Cups and 111 Tests are statistical evidence of a great career for Sella, but he will be remembered more for his diverse skillset, with the word silky springing to mind. Few players have the touch of genius about them, but Sella certainly was one.

. Philippe Sella - the best French center and one of the best of all time

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