By Paul Eddison
The return of crowds has been one of the most welcome sights of the TikTok Women’s Six Nations for almost everyone.
France centre Maëlle Filopon may be the exception.
The 24-year-old was born with a hereditary illness that affects her hearing, particularly when it comes to high-pitched sounds.
While in her everyday life she wears a hearing aid, on the pitch that is not an option.
Filopon can generally make up for her partial deafness with her other senses, but with the return of fans to rugby grounds – and this year’s competition has seen numerous attendance records broken – it has made her role trickier.
That could be particularly tough on Saturday when France play host to England in the TikTok Women’s Six Nations decider at a sold-out Stade Jean Dauger in Bayonne, renowned for its vociferous crowd and the legendary Peña Baiona hymn that is played by the band all game.
— TikTok Women's Six Nations (@Womens6Nations) April 30, 2022
Filopon explained: “It’s difficult when there is a lot of noise, especially because communication is really important.
“You have to be able to communicate but also to be able to hear what is being said by your teammates.
“That part can be very difficult but it is what allows me to grow, to understand my teammates better.
“I have to understand how they play so that if I’ve not heard a call, I can be reactive and make up for it. But it is tough and I’m sure it will remain tough until the end of my career but that’s how it is.”
Les Bleues will head into Saturday’s Crunch with England as underdogs, but have a very strong claim as the second best team in the world – they have not lost to anyone other than the Red Roses since 2019 and twice hammered the Black Ferns last November.
That Filopon has established herself as first choice for France at outside centre is impressive considering it is arguably the position which requires the most communication, particularly in defence.What makes it easier is that Filopon has developed a strong partnership with Gabrielle Vernier, with the pair having started together in three of the four matches so far, and again been named in the 12 and 13 jerseys for the clash in Bayonne.
Filopon added: “It's easier playing with the same player regularly, no question.
“When it comes to set-plays, I will automatically approach my inside centre.
“Over time, I’ve managed to make up for it with other aspects. I use my instinct, my vision to analyse what is happening. So that helps me to react correctly, although sometimes I don’t.
“But it’s all about learning. Overall I manage to make up for it.”
Filopon’s tale is an amazing one. Her love of rugby initially came from her foster family in Miribel-Lanchâtre, a tiny commune around 30 kilometres from Grenoble.
This year’s TikTok Women’s Six Nations has been something of a homecoming for her, having played the opening game against Italy just down the road at Stade des Alpes in Grenoble, before a win over Ireland in Round 2 in Toulouse, where she now lives and plies her trade.
She added: “My foster family and the village where I grew up got me into rugby. I played for a year when I was seven thanks to my family, who love rugby.
— TikTok Women's Six Nations (@Womens6Nations) April 27, 2022
“Then I stopped and played judo but my best friend got me back into it because everyone in the village played rugby and it went naturally from there.
“I was lucky enough to play in the two stadiums that I love. I love the Stade des Alpes in Grenoble and then at the stadium in Toulouse which I love too.
“I’m very fortunate and I know that it probably won’t come around again any time soon. So I made the most of it, to take in those moments.
“It’s a special year with the World Cup, so I’m happy to have been able to have enjoyed these moments, especially with an amazing crowd. I’m aware of how fortunate I am.”
France and England will meet again in the pool stages of the World Cup, and potentially further down the line in the knockout stages.
If France are to end a run of nine successive defeats to their biggest rivals, Filopon might just have to show that she can cut through the noise.
The TikTok Women’s Six Nations is more accessible than ever before. To find out how you can watch the Women’s Championship visit: womens.sixnationsrugby.com/tv/