“Bullshit and Injustice”: the Mishandling of Samoan Rugby
Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu is an outspoken former Samoan rugby international with some choice views on the mismanagement of his nation's game.
Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu played international rugby for Samoa for six years between 2005 and 2011, and yet he is more notorious for his prickly personality on social media than anything he did on the pitch. That is not a dig at him as player – he is, at his best, an abrasive box of midfield tricks – but more a nod to the tenacity with which he takes the fight to those he sees as having wronged him, and his country, in the rugby world. As recently as yesterday, he was using NFL's 'Deflategate' scandal to draw parallels with the England team ball tampering at the 2011 World Cup.
According to Fuimaono-Sapolu there are innumerable injustices committed by the Samoan Rugby Union to which World Rugby (the sport's governing body, formerly known as the International Rugby Board) consistently turned a blind eye, and continues to do so. The most striking, if not the most serious, anecdote goes that when the Samoa squad turned up to their first training session at the 2011 World Cup, no-one had bothered to provide them with balls.
"The no rugby balls thing was the least of our problems at the World Cup," says Fuimaono-Sapolu. "The biggest were being fined for wearing a mouthguard with a label on it and the ridiculously short turnarounds [between games] - both World Rugby-imposed bullshit.
"We can deal with no rugby balls because that's part of playing rugby in Samoa. But having three days rest while your world champion opposition have eight is just too much. The worst part was if you said a word against the injustice, you were banned, like I was. They even tried to take my passport away from me!"
Like all these situations, there are two sides to the story. Fuimaono-Sapolu was handed a six month ban for accusing a referee during the World Cup of being racist – an example of when his hot-headedness has overstepped the line.
But his bolshie online personality and scattergun Twitter attacks should not detract from the fact that there is a real issue at the heart of all of this – the mistreatment of smaller nations by rugby's governing powers, both nationally and internationally.
Prior to that same World Cup, the Samoan Rugby Union was struggling to raise money for their side's campaign. The Samoan public themselves ended up raising millions for the national team, and yet the players claim they saw barely any of it. Their captain at the time, Mahonri Schwalger, claimed after the tournament that the players were paid just $1,000 per game, and had to fund their own travel. Where the rest of that crowd-sourced money went remains a mystery to this day.
Little seems to have changed. Last November, Samoa played a test match against England at Twickenham. In the week prior to the match, the Samoan players threatened to boycott the game in protest at the same injustices the likes of Fuimaono-Sapolu and Schwalger had been rallying against for years. They criticised the lack of transparency in funding at the Samoan Rugby Union, and the dearth of organisation that has seen players have to pay their own airfares to play international games – a practice that continues to this day.
World Rugby eventually stepped in to broker a peace deal, but it took the threat of boycotting a lucrative test match for anything to be done. The test did go ahead, and the RFU made a tidy sum of money from it (most estimates are well into the millions). The Samoans walked away without a penny.
This might be nothing new – it has long been customary for the home nation to pocket the profit from test matches. But it is a one-way street – only Italy and Scotland from the so-called "tier one" nations (a look at the world rankings makes a mockery of these tiers – Samoa sit above both those countries) have played test matches on Pacific Island soil in recent years. By all means allow the home nation to take home the bacon, but when the Samoans and Fijians are helping to sell out Twickenham and pocket the RFU a healthy sum of money, there has to be some form of reciprocation, most obviously by playing a return test match in the Pacific Islands.
New Zealand, one of Samoa's closest rugby-playing neighbours and the most marketable team in the world, will play their first ever game in Samoa this July. They regularly tour the rest of the rugby world but have never once bothered to stop in at their neighbour's on the way home. After an intense media campaign they have agreed to a test match in Apia, but are still likely to play a second-string side for that game, with it being scheduled just four days after a domestic final. Far from the top of the priority list, then.
It is a crying shame. Some of the finest rugby players in the world are born and bred in Samoa and, more widely, the Pacific Islands. But with no money in their game they are tempted away to live and play in other countries, where they can earn more and even represent a different nation once they have qualified through residency (the required period of living in another country before you can represent it currently stands at a ludicrously short three years).
In the age of professionalism, in a sport where salaries at the top clubs are high and the risk of career-threatening injury is even higher, why would players not look to maximise their earning potential? No one begrudges them that. The way things are, that is never going to happen by staying in the Pacific Islands, but the real frustration is that little has been done to improve the state of affairs in the last four years.
Fuimaono-Sapolu says that he is shocked that players continue to play rugby in Samoa, given the dearth of funding in the game and the apparent lack of interest from World Rugby in trying to change the situation.
"I can't believe they play. No one is paid. There are no professional teams to aim for. There is no insurance. There is no good healthcare. There are no health professionals at games.
"Most teams are without balls and basic equipment. Most players don't even have boots. And here they are playing the most dangerous sport in the world, against the most dangerous players in the world [the Pacific Islands do seem the breed particularly large men].
"Maybe it's a foolishness we need to end because after all the adversities one must overcome to simply play rugby in Samoa, if you are good enough to make the National Manu Samoa team, you then have to fight against all the bullshit and injustice World Rugby throw at you."
At no point does Fuimaono-Sapolu bother to hide his bitterness directed towards the game's powers that be, and he is not alone.
More recently a current Samoa player and former captain, Dan Leo, admitted in the press that players from the Pacific Islands have been offered financial incentives to retire from international rugby. It is supposed to be the pinnacle of the game, and yet here they are being encouraged to turn their back on it.
"I can say confidently that every Pacific Island player when they're talking with clubs will be pressurised to declare themselves unavailable for internationals," Leo told Planet Rugby. "Two contracts, two salaries, one for if they retire/refrain from Tests and one if they don't, which can vary from up to 30 or 40 per cent."
Samoa is one of the most passionate rugby nations on earth. Few other countries would essentially crowd source their own team's World Cup campaign – or perhaps more tellingly, it would never get to the stage where they had to. Yet little seems to have changed in the years since Fuimaono-Sapolu severed ties with his national team and the bodies that govern the international game, following one too many outburst that perhaps cut a little too close to the bone.
Returning to that missing money from 2011, when I ask his opinion in where it went, his answer – whether accurate or not – is breathtakingly bitter.
"I think the money went back to World Rugby. That's all the world does. Takes our players, takes our money. Nothing comes back."