Fuimaono-Sapolu’s big risk for island rugby

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.

30 thoughts on “Fuimaono-Sapolu’s big risk for island rugby

  1. Good post- Agree with most of what your saying. The IRB need to give the Islanders and emerging nations like Georgia, Namibia, etc a fairer RWC schedule, and I think they also need to add Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, along with Argentina to the Tri Nations. I agree with most of what Sapolu said except for the analogy with the Holocaust, Apartheid and his comments about the Wels referee Nigel Owens- although I’m Welsh I still believe that Owens is a fair and professional, and is no racist. Samoa were fantastic against the Sprigboks, and gave us a really tough game. I’ve written an article about the IRB’s unfair treatment of RWC minnows, and an article about if the IRB are a friend or a foe to the World Game (” IRB-friend or foe to the World Game”). Please check it out.

    1. Totally agree as do most people that the Holocaust comments were over the top. Eliota did try to explain why he mentioned it but absolutely no comparison. I will definitely check out your article and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      1. I respectfully disagree with the above statement saying that the comments about the holocaust and apartheid was over the top. It is seemingly inappropriate for others to pinpoint what they believe is right or wrong from a certain perspective and in this case, a perspective that has had quite enough of the unfair treatment that not only Samoa but other countries that have sacrificed a lot in order to participate in this year’s RWC. “Money” and “Power” it is all being said and done! So if Sapolu made such a statement or rather a comparison, then he was trying to pinpoint the logistics of how to get his point through, and damn well he got it through. So why be concerned/uptight about something that everyone knows is true, but not exactly the focus of the argument. As for Mr. Owen’s calling of the game between Samoa and the Springboks, I definitely beg to differ on that. Did you really see the Game?!!!

      2. Anonymous, yes I did see the game and I’m not sure how we can disagree on this because I did not agree with allowing the Welshman to referee a critical match in which the outcome was tipped towards his country to receive a favorable result. I did not agree with many of his decisions on the field and I thought he did a complete smear job against Manu Samoa and the country as a whole. As for the holocaust statement I appreciate your comments and understand Sapolu’s reasoning. I support him and hope the best for him and for the future of Manu Samoa and Pacific Island rugby.

  2. Malo lava mo le saunoaga. Great comments. Agree with everything you’ve said. As an update, the Samoan Rugby Union has distanced itself from Sapolu. Grow a back bone SRU!

    1. Tasi, This is absolutely sad news but I’m not surprised. I hope in time that the SRU will file a formal petition to the IRB to have another look at what can be done for future matches. I wish the SRU had a much more prominent role in international policy.

    2. Malo Seti, great article, it bears the question, what can I do?

      Malo Tasi, if that is the case, then there is a reason. Oft, we are not privyy to the internal machinations of such organisationslike SRU. But, I am sure that they are working away at this . Sapolu has just added a whole new dimension to the cause and it is prudent for SRU to weigh up their response, I just hope that they dont ostrichisize the uso.

      1. Talofa Tafilelea – I think speaking out on the matter as Sapolu has done here and voicing these concerns with the IRB and SRU are our best course of action. There are already protests in the works here in the United States to further the cause.
        As for the SRU’s stance, you’ll see in a previous reply to an earlier comment, I agree that the initial reaction (distancing) is to delay their response until they have had time to formulate that response.

  3. I 100% agree with this. Well said. There’s alot of failures beyond the inequality in scheduling, and poor refereeing. If nothing is said and done we will forever view injustice in the game. For one, I just hate watching the TMO expose the referees flaws and yet nothing can be done about it. I thought TMO’s were introduced to improve the integrity of the game but it’s an absolute waste of time. Sapolu is expressing the views that many of us share but have to keep quiet about because we can easily appear to be the villains.

    1. Yes, the TMO has very limited powers in officiating the game. I hope this changes and they can somehow overrule some of the things that are happening on the field. Perhaps having “Big Brother” A.K.A. TMO in the same way that the NFL uses their video/re-play officials will help officials become more diligent and we fans can be less judgmental. Thanks for your comments. I’m always open to your suggestions for topics.

  4. Well written Seti Matua, my sentiments exactly! Alas, I doubt that our guileless & outspoken brother Eli will pull through this unscathed. His unequivocally empassioned rantings on twitter & Facebook are being used by the IRB & others in the RWC community, as affirmations to qualify their feeble-minded, stereotyped perceptions of those from the “minnow” nations, who would speak out against injustice.

    As you so aptly put it “we islanders [are] being called poor sports and rabble-rousers, often with a litany of racist, derogatory expletives…” because we are stirring the embers & bringing to light the many contradictions and inconsistencies inherent in the RWC’s governing body. It’s always the case that when someone decides to take a stand, to fight against the status quo… Hades & all his henchmen will jump onboard and do all in their power to squash that; with not a care the expense, nor the collateral damage involved! I pray that Eli will receive the legal counsel & support he needs to go forth & be heard above the piercing & distracting roar of those who evidently lack character or conscience.

    Martin Luther King, Jr said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” May the fight continue until that level playing field we yearn for becomes a reality!

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughts on the matter. You bring up some points that are an ongoing sense of discomfort for all of us who have grown very wary of the IRB. I can’t fault Tier 1 nations too much because they are not the policy writers or enforcers. But their silence on many of these matters ultimately means that they are part of the problem for not speaking out in place of the smaller nations. This will only make the game better, but they continue to show their arrogance by keeping the golden goose locked away for the elite. Faafetai tele lava for your comments. They are always appreciated.

      1. Thanks for posting this, in total agreeance. I did not give an opinion or speak a word re these issues/ tweeter comments made by Eliota until I saw the interview on Campbell live yesterday. Now that I understand why and where he was speaking from I can speak up in support of him. I get his explanation behind the holocaust, slavery & racist comments and it takes real man to show up on national tv to back his comments and face a reporter like John Campbell. I’m very saddened by SRU’s stance to distance themselves from Eliota, it’s ok when the boys are playing well on the field but at the slight hint of making ‘them’ look bad…where is the honourable support for Eliota? All we can hope & pray for now is that change will happen in an honest good way and that young men & women like Eliota will continue to speak out against inequality & disharmony which exists in all facets of life…that is our perogative as human beings to make good that of which man has ruined for his own gain & greed. All the best to Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and his family.

      2. Thanks for your comments Roberta. Let’s hope that Eliota continues to speak out and be courageous in his attempts to bring light to the subject. To some extent I can no understand why the SRU is distancing themselves since he is not an official spokesperson for the team. But I do feel that they need to come out with their own statement regarding the issues he raises be it through the President/Prime Minister or an official liaison for the union. Perhaps by the end of the month when the RWC dust has settled we will hear more on the matter. Faafetai le tapua’i.

  5. I take my hat off to you, Fuimaono Sapolu. It is your Human right to say how you feel to voice the freedom of speech. Stand up for our beautiful homeland, it just takes a wave to start a tsunami and I hope you did just that. Always been told by great leaders to stand up and be a leader not a follower. I too,support you and wish you well, Much alofas.

    1. I second that! A rolling stone gathers no moss and the squeaky wheel always gets oiled. More voices means more visibility. Let’s get noticed and show our support for this very just cause.

  6. Holocaust, apartheid and racist remarks towards the ref by Eliota may sound too harsh and out of proportion, but only Eliota would know the analogy to these terms in his own explanation as mention in his televised interview . In my own opinion it ‘s an effective tactics of free speech as not only getting the public’s attention but also the attention of the clowns whom was directed to. This Island rugby risk it’s worth a shot. The Prime Minister of Samoa whom also is the chairman of Samoa rugby Union already fire a shot at the IRB accusing them as the most unfair organization in the world. I take my hat off to Eliota for his bravery to take on the clowns.We believe of the risks ahead but I think it’s time to roll the dice while the world is keeping an eye on the issue..As for Eliota.., there is rugby league on the other hand , utilize your talent on that code for now while we await for a positive outcome . O Samoa e saili malo..Manuia au faiva ae o le a matou tapua’i. ..A le manuia ia taga’i ane i le i si laasaga o loo i ai lau poto faapitoa..Ave loa i le faamasinoga a Samoa e leai ma se umi..hahaa..

    1. Malo le saunoa Max! I pray that we can agree to disagree on the matter of the holocaust. Yes, it is definitely what turned heads and made the IRB stand up and take notice and his rationale makes sense. I just don’t know that the deaths of thousands of innocent Jews and our rugby plight is a fair comparison but again, I see his point. At any rate, as President of the SRU the Prime Minister cannot distance himself from the controversy considering his ongoing rhetoric with the IRB on the matter. Perhaps you should return to Samoa and rally the cause? My best to you in your efforts in Australia uso!

      1. Thanks bro, love the article, Thanks for keeping our people updated to what is happening around the globe. keep up the good work.

        All the the best on your side.


  7. Its sad because it seems the SRU have backed off in fear of losing IRB funding. Sepolu is a great ambassador of the game, someone I personally have known as a teenager playing social basketball and back at Uni. The crazy thing though is he has always been like that. Someone who is able to speak his mind without the fear of consequences. He has definately left a mark in the social landscape of international rugby.

  8. I believe that something good is coming out of this, I will suggest to our nation leaders to speak up on the matter and support Sapolu. And thank God for the internet that we can level the plain field in expressing our views. It will take time but I believe we got their attention…keep up the good work.

    1. I also believe that something good will come of it. We will definitely see more of our Pacific Island people speaking out on the issue. Thanks for your support and let’s keep the ball rolling.

  9. The IRP should be ashamed of themselves and be replaced or be voted out. They created the problem at first.
    1.they just admitted it was all about money, I thought the whole nature of the competition is to find out who will be the next world champ…And then have the nerve to threat and ban Sapolu for life for speaking up about the bias and the unfairness in which the tournament were conducted, favor the rich nation. I thought we are free at last.said the great Martin Luther King…to express ourselves in this modern era of time. or we are still in the stone ages….hush …hush…you are nobody…go back home….And the IRP !!!!! Sapolu was right..YOU ARE a joke…YOU are all members representing the rich countries, sorry Samoa, Fiji and Tonga….to them …what we know…Anyway the battle is just begin thanks to the internet, speak up it keep it civil…love you all.

    1. Thanks for your passion. Your comments, like Sapolu’s, illustrate that our people have had enough of the unfair practices. Thank you and I appreciate your comments.

  10. Agree with the post completely! Good job! I would add to that Eliota wasn’t concerned about being politically correct. People nowadays are so concern about being politically correct that they beat around the bush to find some nice words to tell what’s on their minds. Listeners usually get the correct message when the sender says it like it is. People will accept or not like what you say, but you have the agency to say what you want to say.

    1. I think we could be a little less politically correct and say what’s on our minds and I agree, say what you want and let others decide if they like you or dislike you.

  11. Thanks for posting this, in total agneraece. I did not give an opinion or speak a word re these issues/ tweeter comments made by Eliota until I saw the interview on Campbell live yesterday. Now that I understand why and where he was speaking from I can speak up in support of him. I get his explanation behind the holocaust, slavery & racist comments and it takes real man to show up on national tv to back his comments and face a reporter like John Campbell. I’m very saddened by SRU’s stance to distance themselves from Eliota, it’s ok when the boys are playing well on the field but at the slight hint of making them’ look bad where is the honourable support for Eliota? All we can hope & pray for now is that change will happen in an honest good way and that young men & women like Eliota will continue to speak out against inequality & disharmony which exists in all facets of life that is our perogative as human beings to make good that of which man has ruined for his own gain & greed. All the best to Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and his family.

    1. Yes, Eliota is a very outspoken guy and he stands by his words which is very commendable and honorable. I’ve had a tough time trying to stomach the way things are going with the SRU, particularly since the end of the RWC last year. Now that, Eliota, Schwalger and others speaking out regarding the mismanagement of the team I hope that it will eventually change the way things are done. It will not be wholesale change right away, but any change is better than the current state of affairs.

      Thanks for your opinion and comments.

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