AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — A suspended rugby player says he’s ready to quit the sport if his outspoken comments against the International Rugby Board lead to better treatment for second-tier teams.
Samoan center Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu was suspended by the IRB after failing to appear at a World Cup judicial hearing Tuesday to discuss critical comments he made on Twitter about the IRB and referee Nigel Owens, who officiated during Samoa’s narrow loss to South Africa last week.
But Fuimaono-Sapolu said on New Zealand TV he wasn’t informed about the whereabouts or time of the hearing.
“Perhaps,” Fuimaono-Sapolu said when asked if he would have attended the hearing if he knew the details. “They don’t really have most people’s trust at the moment. A lot of injustice has been dealt by the IRB and I would struggle to believe they would come up with a just decision for me.”
Was he ready to sacrifice his professional rugby career?
“Yes,” said the qualified lawyer. “I studied hard for a reason, to make sure I had a backup.”
The 30-year-old Fuimaono-Sapolu has hinted at retiring from international rugby after his second World Cup. He is currently under contract with English club Gloucester, where he was named their best player last season.
The Samoa Rugby Union was also charged with misconduct for failing to control the player. SRU officials apologized to the IRB two weeks ago after Fuimaono-Sapolu likened the shorter rest time endured by Tier Two teams to slavery, apartheid and the Holocaust. The player was warned then about future comments on social media outlets.
But after losing to South Africa in a torrid quarterfinal match, in which Owens was criticized by both teams, Fuimaono-Sapolu tweeted that Owens was racist and biased, accused the IRB of conspiring to help the top teams and again dared the IRB to come after him.
In using the word racist, Fuimaono-Sapolu said he was referring to how Samoa didn’t receive a fair match from the referees, noting that New Zealand ref Paul Honiss was also heavily criticized after a 2007 World Cup loss to South Africa.
“We always get bad referees, we always get stereotyped that we don’t know how to play rugby; that we’re thugs, that we’re stupid. We’ve always got that,” Fuimaono-Sapolu said.
Fuimaono-Sapolu said that proving actual bias by Owens was debatable, but there was apparent bias because of a conflict of interest in Owens being a Welshman in charge of a game that had a bearing on Wales qualifying for the quarters.
“There was a perceived bias that could have been eliminated by just getting another ref,” Fuimaono-Sapolu said. “How hard is that?”
IRB referees manager Paddy O’Brien defended Owens on Tuesday.
“There were, like all games in the tournament, errors made. Any errors we addressed with Nigel,” O’Brien said. “It certainly wasn’t seen as a perfect performance and there are some areas we’ve asked him to look at. But overall, he’s refereed very, very well here.”
Owens will officiate the quarterfinal match between New Zealand and Argentina.
Fuimaono-Sapolu said he had the support of some Samoa teammates, but he didn’t want to be regarded as speaking on behalf of the team.
“I just want justice for the next generation,” he said. “We beat Australia, we should have beaten (South Africa) but we were climbing up the hill. Adversity after adversity, hurdle after hurdle. I just want the next generation of Samoan players to be given a level playing field.
“It’s a shame to throw away (my) rugby career because I’m fighting for justice … that’s odd. So if that happens, I’m definitely not throwing it away. I’m having my career squashed by injustice.”
Earlier in the day, IRB chief executive Mike Miller said Fuimaono-Sapolu could say whatever he likes — up to a point.
“When you question someone’s integrity when they can’t fend for themselves, call someone racist and other unpleasant things, it’s not right,” Miller said.
He also defended the IRB’s treatment of second-tier teams.
“We don’t care about the minnows?” Miller asked. “If that was the case, why have we invested tens of millions of dollars over the past five or six years in order to try and make them more competitive? Why did we open up and pay for a high-performance center in Samoa? Why do we pay for the Pacific Rugby Cup, the Pacific Nations Cup? Why do we give them coaches, trainers? Why do we provide them with gyms with analysis tools?”
“Why do we ensure Tier One nations will go and tour the islands (beginning) next year? Why do that if we don’t care?”