16 Oct 2011

Samoa player given six month suspended ban

7:34 am on 16 October 2011

An independent judge presiding has found Samoan Rugby World Cup player Eliota Fuimaono Sapolu guilty of misconduct over his Twitter comments and given him a six month suspended ban from rugby.

The 30-year-old was charged with breaching the World Cup's terms of participation and disciplinary programme after he labelled the Welsh referee, Nigel Owens, a racist and accused him of bias.

Judge Jeff Blackett of England ruled at a misconduct hearing hearing in Auckland on Saturday that the comments posted on Twitter by Sapolu impugned Owens' integrity and reputation.

He said there was absolutely no evidence that the referee was biased during Samoa's 13-5 loss to South Africa in pool play of the Rugby World Cup.

Sapolu has been suspended from playing for six months, but the ban will be suspended providing he makes a full and unconditional apology to Owens.

He must also do a minimum of 100 hours rugby community work at the International Rugby Board (IRB) high performance centre in Samoa and pass a recognised referee course.

A further condition is that he refrain from criticising rugby authorities for two years, which his lawyer, Josie Fuimaono Sapolu, who is also his sister, says is harsh as it means he has to choose between his livelihood and his right to free expression. Sapolu can appeal against the decision.

Crowd show support

During the hearing, a large crowd gathered outside to express support for Sapolu.

Radio New Zealand's reporter at the scene said hundreds of supporters were outside the Vero Centre on Shortland Street at midday waving Samoan flags and holding up signs.

Police closed the street to traffic for a time.

A friend of Sapolu, Efeso Collins, organised the show of support and said he believed the IRB was being too harsh.

"I think the IRB have got to admit that the Pacific people in New Zealand have made this Rugby World Cup - we've been the colour and the flavour."

The IRB misconduct hearing had been adjourned until Saturday to give the player's legal representatives more time to consider the charges.