Rugby World Cup 2011
Fuimaono-Sapolu hit with suspended sentence
October 15, 2011
Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu has avoided an immediate ban for his Twitter rant © Getty Images
Samoa centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu has received a six-month suspended ban for comments he made on Twitter regarding a World Cup referee and the International Rugby Board.
The 30-year-old Samoa international accused Welsh referee Nigel Owens of bias after Samoa's tournament-ending defeat against world champions South Africa 15 days ago, venting his feelings on Twitter. He faced alleged breaches of the Rugby World Cup/International Rugby Board code of conduct at a hearing in Auckland today, which had already been postponed twice.
Fuimaono-Sapolu's sanction was suspended for two years, pending three conditions. These are that he makes a full and unconditional apology to Owens and unconditional retraction of any criticism of him; that he carries out minimum 100 hours' rugby community work in Samoa in support of the International Rugby Board's high performance programme within the next 12 months; and he attends and passes a recognised referee course within the next three months.
Appointed judicial officer, England's Judge Jeff Blackett, heard evidence from the player and his representatives at the hearing, which began with many Samoan rugby fans demonstrating their support for Fuimaono-Sapolu outside the central Auckland building. Blackett determined that the comments made about Owens by Fuimaono-Sapolu "impugn his integrity and reputation, both as a referee and as a man."
Blackett said he recognised the player might have been angry or emotional when making his initial comments via Twitter, but it did not justify his offensive behaviour towards the referee. Contrary to the Fuimaono-Sapolu's submissions, Blackett said there was "absolutely no evidence that the referee was biased in the sense that he deliberately favoured one side or the other. To suggest that Nigel Owens is racist against Samoans is also completely inappropriate."
If the player fails to comply with any of the conditions imposed as part of his punishment - or he makes any public criticism which results in a proven misconduct offence regarding a match official, the IRB or the disciplinary process - the suspension will be activated immediately. Fuimaono-Sapolu, who is set to link up with Aviva Premiership club Gloucester shortly, has the right of appeal.
The Samoan centre later tweeted in response to the announcement: "I do not want to play #Rugby anymore. One thing is for sure, my children definitely won't be. I'm so grateful and so overwhelmed with the many people who were at the hearing today. Thank you beyond what my heart can give. Love you all."
He had been provisionally banned after failing to attend his initial misconduct hearing. He then turned up for a rescheduled session, but Blackett agreed to an adjournment following a request by the player and his legal team. It was accepted in order for them to consider the charges and enable Fuimaono-Sapolu to honour a commitment attending a Samoan government function welcoming home the Samoa team from World Cup duty.
Fuimaono-Sapolu had already been warned by World Cup chiefs about remarks he made on Twitter earlier in the tournament. Samoa were eliminated from the World Cup following their 13-5 loss to the Springboks.
Fuimaono-Sapolu questioned Owens' neutrality for the game against South Africa, claiming that Wales stood to benefit from a Springboks victory. He also criticised Owens' performance. Earlier in the competition it was decided the player should not face disciplinary action following a Twitter outburst after Samoa lost their crucial Pool D clash 17-10 to Wales.
He had accused the IRB of "unfair treatment" due to Samoa playing for a second time in four days while Wales had a week off after they faced South Africa. He compared Samoa's treatment to slavery, the holocaust and apartheid before issuing an apology that World Cup chiefs accepted.
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