Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu explains why Samoa are fighting for their rugby future
Former international opens up on the problems facing his compatriots
By Julian Crabtree
Last Updated: 21/11/14 9:06am
England see their QBE International against Samoa on Saturday as a chance to get back to winning ways. Having suffered defeats to New Zealand and South Africa, Stuart Lancaster’s men are desperate to get a win and are looking to do that against Samoa.
However Saturday’s clash at Twickenham is not about winning or losing for Samoa. It’s more important than that. In the words of skipper Dan Leo, the future of Samoa rugby hangs in the balance. Leo and senior players have major concerns surrounding the administration of the Samoa Rugby Union and threatened to boycott the game.
However, any strike action has been ruled out after the International Rugby Board – now known as World Rugby – and the International Rugby Players' Association, stepped in to act as mediators between the players and Samoa Rugby Union.
But former Samoa back Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu believes that nothing will change and apologised to the current crop of Samoa players for not doing enough.
“There have been a lot of issues that have been going for a long time,” explained Fuimaono-Sapolu, who now plays for the Coca-Cola West Red Sparks in Japan.
“I was involved in the Samoa team for about six years and just about every year we had to threaten to strike. The closest we got was in 2000 against the Western Force where we delayed kick-off for a couple of hours.
“Seeing the list that the boys have come out with, well that is exactly what we were going to strike about. Basically we have just handed down the problems to the next generation.
We have so much talent, Polynesian players are such brilliant rugby players and we add so much to the game. I cannot imagine rugby without Polynesian players but we really feel that we are being exploited.
“I apologise to this team for that, we should have taken stronger action and made sure that the future of Samoa rugby was secure. We should have taken a stronger stance.”
Fuimaono-Sapolu's issue is mainly with how Samoa is treated, especially by their own union and says all the players want is to be treated fairly and with respect.
“The team are asking for exactly what we asked for – professionalism, transparency, being treated with respect and fairness.
“A lot of our issues have to do with local players – even though they are in high-performance units they are not being paid. If they are paid its late or half of it’s gone because of some ‘emergency’ payment that the Samoa Rugby Union has had to pay. They are not being treated fairly and it has to stop.”
Eliota is passionate about his rugby and has often spoken out about the injustices that he sees happening in the game. So much so that he has been sanctioned by World Rugby in the past but that has not stopped him for speaking out about how the game is run. He feels strongly that Samoa are treated like second-rate citizens and believes the way the money is divvied out is out of date and puts Samoa at a clear disadvantage.
“The RFU are set to make £5 million out of this game on Saturday – Samoa will get nothing,” explained Fuimaono-Sapolu, who won 23 caps for Samoa.
“This harks back to the amateur days when a touring side was looked after by the host union in terms of accommodation and food but the host union would get 100% of the gate money.
“The idea was that the host country would then reciprocate and go and tour the other country so they could make some money off the gates. But of course that does not happen with Samoa – no one comes and tours Samoa, Fiji or Tonga.
“There will be 30 players running out onto the Twickenham turf on Saturday, 30 players who will give their all, who will play with passion and pride and put their bodies on the line. Fifteen players will be fairly compensated for that, 15 will not. Do you really think that is right or fair?
“If we got 20% of the gate money then that funds rugby in Samoa for two to three years; that’s coming from just one game. The players are not being greedy; all they want is for our country to be fairly treated and for our union to treat the players fairly. The future of rugby in Samoa needs funding and needs someone to make a stand.”
That stand does not look like it will happen at Twickenham this Saturday as by all accounts Samoa will be running out come kick-off, although they will be wearing black armbands to raise awareness of their plight.
In a statement from World Rugby, all parties are engaged in dialogue to address all their concerns and World Rugby and the International Rugby Players' Association are facilitating urgent and collaborative resolutions. However according to Samoa prop Census Johnston, expulsion from the 2015 World Cup and cancelling New Zealand’s first ever visit to Samoa forced the players to back down from their strike action, and Fuimaono-Sapolu is not surprised by this tactic.
He added: “If that is true then I am not surprised, it’s just bully tactics – it seems that they are saying stay in line, don’t rock the boat – and if you do we’ll punish you.
“I love rugby, I love everything about it. In every team you need a short guy, a tall guy, a fat person, a skinny person, someone who is fast and someone who is slow. In order to be a successful team you need all types of people – that is one of the key principles in rugby, to be inclusive, to make sure everyone can play. But then you see how exclusive rugby is run and it's not right.
"Einstein said: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ So I am guessing that the threat of strike, like we have threatened time and time again, is going to solve nothing. Perhaps now it is time to try something out and carry out that threat.”
Enough is enough
World Rugby are committed to developing the game and within the four-year cycle between World Cup's have invested £17 million into the likes of Samoa, Fiji and Tonga. This money is split into different categories including development grants, high performance grants and helping the teams prepare for tournaments including the World Cup and the Pacific Nations Cup. This investment is set against specific target objectives with each project being approved by World Rugby and that expenditure is overseen.
However, Fuimaono-Sapolu would like to see much more being done in terms of how that money is used and his passion often turns to frustration as he feels Samoa are not been given the best chance to deliver on and off the pitch.
“We have so much talent, Polynesian players are such brilliant rugby players and we add so much to the game. I cannot imagine rugby without Polynesian players but we really feel that we are being exploited.
“The richer unions are getting richer yet we are battling – it’s beyond frustrating. We don’t want to be the dominant force in rugby, we don’t want to be the wealthiest, we want to be able to survive, we want the playing field levelled out a bit so that we can really compete on a regular basis. On the field we want to know that we have a fair chance and off the field we want to know that we are not getting exploited and that our game, our players and our future is being looked after.
“I will cheer Samoa on no matter what, they are my team but it’s time we stood up and said enough is enough.”