Maelle Filopon’s proudest achievement in senior rugby, so far, will always elicit a bittersweet memory.
First came the elation of stepping inside both Kendra Cocksedge and Stacey Waaka before outpacing Ayesha Leti-I’iga to score a brilliant solo try for France against world champions New Zealand in her home town, Grenoble, last November.
France would go on to secure a 30-27 victory – their first ever – over the touring Black Ferns in front of a packed Stade des Alpes, but Filopon would play no further part.
The young Stade Toulousain centre had been imperious in the opening 27 minutes, however, as she tried to get back to her feet she realised something was not right.
In their attempts to prevent the try, Leti-I’iga and Waaka had inadvertently combined to injure Filopon’s posterior cruciate ligament.
“It was a complete break,” she said. “It was a dream to be playing at home to the Black Ferns, and it happened in a split second.
“You feel good and then suddenly you’re on the ground and you can’t get up and walk, so it’s heart-breaking.”
Filopon’s anguish as she began the long road to recovery was added to by the fact that it occurred two years after she suffered the same injury to her other knee.
Having broken into the French midfield during the November campaign only to suffer such a setback as she realised a dream it would have been easy to feel aggrieved. But the 21-year-old has been able to draw on past adversity.
“When it first happened, it was even harder but now I have the experience of being injured and getting over it,” she admitted.
“So, I have accepted it better and I am supporting the team, watching on TV and everything.”
It was not only injury that Filopon had to overcome to take the field at the Stade des Alpes against the Black Ferns last year.
She was first introduced to the sport by her rugby-mad foster family at the age of six. However, her involvement with it initially lasted just one season due to fears that she might suffer a serious facial injury.
Team sport allure
“My foster mother thought that I might break my nose,” Filopon explained. “It was because of my foster mother that I stopped.”
Filopon was instead encouraged to take up judo, and excelled at the martial art, but her desire to return to rugby never left her.
She had been attracted by the “values and the respect and the love for wearing the jersey” offered by the team sport and increasingly found herself yearning to join her friends on the rugby pitch.
“My best friend was playing rugby,” she said. “I didn’t really want to carry on with judo so my best friend was like ‘Let’s try to play rugby’.
“We kept trying to convince my foster family and eventually they gave in and let me play.”
Filopon got her wish when she was 12 and despite being “a little bit scared of tackling” when she first returned to rugby, was able to use what she had learned in judo to make sure that she fell without getting hurt.
Tackling was not the only adjustment that she was required to make, though. Filopon suffers from a hereditary illness that has left her with reduced hearing, and means she is unable to decipher high-pitched or low tones.
During her time in judo this did not present a problem because she only had to make out voices, but when Filopon ran back out onto the rugby pitch she quickly learned that she could not hear the referee’s whistle.
This definitely did provide a sizeable obstacle to her continued enjoyment of the game.
“Once I did a late tackle and I got penalised and people got p****d off,” she admitted. “But it was because I didn’t hear the whistle.”
Initially Filopon’s captain would inform the officials of her condition so they were aware of it, but now the centre relies on visual cues to make up for her lack of hearing.
“It was a matter of getting used to it, anyway,” Filopon explained. “But now I have developed more visual intelligence, more so than hearing, so I can see if somebody stops moving.
“So, I understand movement better and now it’s much easier. It was hard at the beginning.”
Filopon adapted quickly and reaching the final of the French national schools competition with her classmates remains her proudest achievement in the game, alongside her try-scoring appearance against the Black Ferns.
“It was three years of working hard with my very good friends and family,” she said. “So it was an achievement after three years of hard work.”
Filopon is just at the start of what she hopes will be a long international career with France.
She would welcome women’s rugby in the country one day following the examples of England and New Zealand and going professional, although she insists she is happy to have “something else” in her life to focus on other than sport.
For now, she is just concentrating on returning to action with Toulouse and that alone should show the next generation of female stars that no barrier is too big that it cannot be overcome.
“I don’t really aspire to be a role model but what I really want to do is to get better myself and I want to learn more and more about myself,” Filopon said.
“And if that does inspire girls that would be great.”