People are getting sick of me talking about rugby so I’m going to talk about something else that just happens to be rugby related. Please forgive me but I feel compelled to speak out on this subject simply because it concerns two things that I am passionate about – Samoa (that’s a given) and inequality. I have no intentions to play politics and I have only one agenda and that is to speak out on something that is blaringly unfair and needs to be addressed by all who believe that there is a problem.
May Angelou was quoted as saying, “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”
I’ve read the various reports and subsequent comments from many people regarding the subject. I believe I understand the issue from both perspectives and now I’m throwing it back for a response, preferably from the International Rugby Board (IRB), the Samoa Rugby Union (SRU) and our cousins in the Pacific, namely the unions from New Zealand (NZRU), Tonga (TRU) and Fiji (FRU).
Controversy has been swirling around Manu Samoa Centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu after his recent Twitter tirades that have provoked not one, but two chastisements from the IRB, rugby’s governing body. Because of this latest incident, the IRB may be pushing towards banning Sapolu from participating in any rugby for what may be the rest of his rugby-playing life. Pretty harsh considering Sapolu plays professionally for an Enland-based club and this is the man’s livelihood.
In a nutshell, Sapolu has accused the IRB and its officials of racism, bias and unfair treatment towards what many refer to as the Tier 2 rugby countries, particularly Pacific Island teams. Those in the first tier include South Africa (Samoa’s last opponent in pool play at the RWC), New Zealand, Argentina, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and a few other European countries.
Sapolu is a very outspoken individual who does not mince words as evident by his various tweets throughout the course of Manu Samoa’s pursuit of Rugby World Cup excellence. He makes very valid points to substantiate his claims of inequality but everyone who cheers for Pacific Island teams knows that the IRB has relevant historical precedence in the matter. Sapolu’s rants are just the verbalization of the culmination of an ongoing dilemma that the IRB has not solved since the tournaments inception in 1987. He has, for all intents and purposes, become the sacrificial lamb for Pacific Island rugby. Sapolu, who is a lawyer by trade (when he’s not playing rugby), has taken up the cause with fervor and I doubt that he has any problems whatsoever with being the man with his head and his reputation at stake.
I wrote about this shortly after the 2003 and 2007 RWC’s and I’m going to say it again in 2001 – rugby will never be a global sport among the masses until the IRB levels the playing field. Yes, I readily agree that they are pouring a lot of money into the islands, the Americas, eastern European countries and Asia to develop the sport. However, when it comes to scheduling test matches for the smaller nations against the top teams in the sport, the suits in the IRB board rooms push away from the table like the discussion is sure to give them a communicable disease. Why? I believe that it has nothing to do with development and more to do with money.
They say, ‘Who would pay for a much between New Zealand and Tonga? Who would pay for a match between Samoa and South Africa? How about a lowly match between two horrible rugby playing countries like Samoa and Fiji?’ Um, it appears the wonderful people of New Zealand have shown us that they would gladly pay for a ticket to watch any of these teams square off in order to watch good quality rugby. Yes, I understand that those tickets are at world cup events, but can you honestly tell me that the people who paid for a ticket to the RWC warm-up match between Samoa and Australia felt like they were robbed?
Making money is important in the continued development efforts of the IRB and the sport. But can the IRB honestly say that money is not the only factor in that decision? They say logistics is an issue, so why not play the majority of the international tests for the island nations in Australia or New Zealand where there is been loyal support from both Wallaby, All Blacks and island fans?
Adding fodder to Sapolu’s argument is the horrendous officiating experienced by all island teams during the RWC. We complain about officials in every sport and in every game, yet in every match played by the lower level teams one can make an appropriate case for favorable outcomes based on the inability of match officials to be even-handed in their disciplinary actions, their flawed officiating during critical moments of the matches and the blatant infractions committed by the favored teams that were not addressed. Yes, referees are imperfect human beings trying to call a perfect game. But when everyone watching the same game can spot a penalty that a guy who has gone through rigorous training and is collecting a paycheck to make the call in rugby’s premier event can’t see, than we are all in a world of trouble!
Island rugby is physical. Even islanders readily accept and recognize that in the past we have been a bit liberal and often deliberate with our style of play. It is exciting and it brings a different level of electricity to the game. We are defined by it, and yet it has become a blessing and a curse. As Sapolu himself pointed out in his interview (video attached to this article), officials are pre-disposed to and have a preconceived notion about the way islanders will play, and thus the microscope and the scrutiny is amplified. Thus, when a South African makes an illegal hit it was justified. When a Tongan makes a questionable hit, he gets sent off and suspended for a time. Never mind the fact that the same islanders playing in the RWC play alongside players from other countries in professional leagues in Europe and the southern hemisphere and are at the top level of competition and form.
Additionally, discipline handed out to islanders has been unjust as well. Inappropriate actions on and off the field for European nations have gone off without a single disciplinary board. Two guys (coincidentally from the same Samoan family) wear an unapproved mouth-guard and suddenly the IRB is handing out fines. A Fijian player makes a tackle that just moments before a player from the opposing team made against one of his teammates and who gets fined and suspended? Yes, you guessed it, the kid from the island who made the trip to New Zealand on a budget tighter than a Dancing With The Stars sequined participant. And if the NBA had scheduled a double header play-off games in a single day for the Lakers, or if the NFL had scheduled back-to-back play-off games for the Pittsburgh Steelers without rest, you can guarantee that somewhere in the United States, someone is plotting a coup in those respective organizations complete with rally’s on Washington, D.C. and across the nation.
I commend Sapolu for standing up and voicing his concerns, which in truth are all of our concerns. But his visibility, knowledge and exposure to the topics plaguing island rugby will shed more light on the subject than anything I can say or do and with more power and conviction.
Thomas Jefferson said, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” Now that Sapolu and to some extent the SRU is speaking out on the issues, we islanders are being called poor sports and rabble-rousers, often with a litany of racist, derogatory expletives. Why the animosity when we are just trying to point out the inequality? Perhaps because the lesser folk are disrupting the big dance for rugby royalty. But if we don’t speak out on these issues, in another four years, our island rugby nations will be invited to the ball again, but only to set the table for the honored guests to dine in leisure and comfort.
We are passionate about our rugby. Unfortunately, only one guy is going to lose his livelihood over it. Don’t let the IRB make an example of him. End the dictatorial, oppressive policies and let the rest of us have a fair crack at rugby glory.