Sapolu sought 'martyrdom'

2011-10-19 10:58

Auckland - Judicial officer Jeff Blackett decided that Samoa centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu "was seeking martyrdom" in trying to justify his abusive tweets against Welsh referee Nigel Owens during the Rugby World Cup.

Blackett gave Fuimaono-Sapolu a suspended six-month ban subject to conditions last weekend following a hearing, the full details of which were released on Wednesday.

While Fuimaono-Sapolu pleaded not guilty to the misconduct charges at the start of the hearing, he eventually "acknowledged that he went too far" and apologized, Blackett wrote in his findings.

He also fined the player NZ$1 000 (R6 385) "because of the way he has conducted this case and huge inconvenience to all parties."

The hearing was postponed twice.

"This case has generated significant publicity," Blackett wrote. "It has not been helped by the conduct of the player who, it seems to me, was seeking martyrdom. I am grateful that after raising every point - however unmeritorious - he has finally accepted that he acted inappropriately and has at last shown some contrition and acknowledged his culpability."

Following Samoa's tournament-ending 13-5 loss to South Africa, controlled by Owens on September 30, Fuimaono-Sapolu posted on Twitter that the ref was biased and racist.

He tried to justify the tweets in interviews on New Zealand television, saying he'd be prepared to sacrifice his professional rugby career if it ultimately helped Samoa and other lower-ranked teams.

In the hearing, Fuimaono-Sapolu, a qualified lawyer, accused the match officials of being patronizing and condescending to the Samoans and not the defending champion Springboks. He said Owens was biased because he's Welsh and the result had quarterfinal implications for Wales, and the referee was selected for the game by a committee chaired by David Pickering, also the Wales Rugby Union chairman.

Fuimaono-Sapolu also believed his posts weren't in the tournament's jurisdiction because Samoa was out of contention, and he'd amended his participation agreement in regards to freedom of speech. But neither he nor the Samoa Rugby Union could produce a copy or say what parts were amended.

Fuimaono-Sapolu noted that his provisional suspension from missing the first hearing had cost one game for his English club Gloucester, and he had never before in his professional career been cited, ordered off the field or faced misconduct proceedings. At the last World Cup, he'd even represented other players at disciplinary hearings.

But Blackett said the tweets were "objectively and subjectively abusive and offensive."

"They impugn (Owens') integrity and reputation both as a referee and as a man. The suggestion that this is an exercise of free speech is specious. There are limits to what one may say about others and those who are maligned without justification can seek relief through defamation proceedings. The statements used here cross those limits."

Blackett said if Fuimaono-Sapolu had used the same language on the field he would have suspended him from playing for six months.

He said the player claiming that the tweets were justified was "plain nonsense," that "it may have been unwise for a Welsh referee" to be in control and Owens "may or may not have enjoyed the best of games" but there was no evidence of bias in deliberately favouring one of the teams, and no evidence that Owens "made decisions based on the race of one of the teams."

Blackett wrote Samoa was "unlucky" not to reach the quarterfinals, the match against South Africa was one of the tournament's best, and Sapolu was an outstanding player who "made a significant contribution on the pitch."

But in deciding on a sanction, Blackett wrote he was looking for a deterrent, plus a positive outcome for the player, the Samoa Rugby Union and the tournament.

Blackett said the suspended ban would be activated immediately if the player did not apologize to Owens, retract his criticism of Owens, and undertake a refereeā€™s course at his own expense within the next three months. Fuimaono-Sapolu was also ordered to give 100 hours of community work in Samoa for the country's high performance centre within the next year.

SRU representative Stephen Cottrell said if the SRU was to be fined, to make it as small as possible and not suspended, because the SRU would have no control over which trigger might activate it. Blackett just reprimanded the SRU.

For all the attention the case did bring, Fuimaono-Sapolu's Twitter rants did have an impact on the Rugby World Cup.

The Tier One nations agreed later to consider playing midweek matches at the next World Cup, to take the burden off the lower tier countries which are usually forced to play matches with considerably shorter turnaround times.