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Samoa rebel Fuimaono-Sapolu hit withsuspended ban over ref rant

Samoa centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu escaped an immediate ban and was allowed to play again after a judicial hearing today ruled on his criticism of a World Cup referee and the International Rugby Board.

Judicial officer Jeff Blackett upheld every charge of misconduct against Fuimaono-Sapolu and banned him for six months, but suspended the penalty for two years as long as the player apologises to Welsh referee Nigel Owens, retracts his criticism of Owens, and undertakes a referees' course within the next three months.

Blackett also told Fuimaono-Sapolu he must do 100 hours of community work in Samoa for the country's high performance centre in the next year.

Failure to comply with the conditions, or further criticism of match officials, the IRB or the disciplinary process, will result in the six-month ban being activated immediately.

About 200 supporters of Fuimaono-Sapolu, many holding Samoa flags, rallied to support him as he went into the hearing venue in downtown Auckland. The group waited hours for him to reappear before resuming their cheers and chants.

"I feel I still have a role and an opportunity to help my people through rugby so I have to compromise," Fuimaono-Sapolu said. "I feel like I don't want to play rugby anymore."



Slammed

Fuimaono-Sapolu wrote on Twitter that Owens was racist and biased after controlling Samoa's tournament-ending 13-5 loss to South Africa on September 30, and slammed the IRB for giving second-tier teams less rest between matches than the top-ranked teams in the World Cup.

In a statement from the IRB, Blackett said the comments "impugn (Owens') integrity and reputation both as a referee and as a man". Blackett said he recognised Fuimaono-Sapolu was angry or emotional when he tweeted, "however it did not justify his offensive behaviour towards the referee".

Also despite submissions by Fuimaono-Sapolu, a qualified lawyer, 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," he said.

Fuimaono-Sapolu had been provisionally suspended by the IRB since October 4, when he failed to attend the first scheduled judicial hearing because he said he wasn't informed by the Samoa Rugby Union. The SRU was also cited for misconduct for not controlling him. Later that night, he said on TV he was prepared to sacrifice his professional rugby career for justice for lower-tier teams.

A second hearing a day later was adjourned to give Fuimaono-Sapolu more time to prepare his defence.

His last tweet before the latest hearing was, "No matter the outcome, the quest for fair and equal treatment for all people will continue."

Fuimaono-Sapolu, who turns 31 next Friday, has been representing Samoa since 2005, and will be able to turn out for English club Gloucester, where he has been contracted since 2009.



Trouble

He first got in trouble with the IRB after Samoa lost 17-10 to Wales, when he decried the fact Wales had three days more to prepare for the key match. Afterwards, he likened the IRB's treatment of second-tier teams to slavery, apartheid and the holocaust. Team officials apologised to the IRB on his behalf.

Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi, who was critical of the IRB before the cup for failing to address Pacific concerns over player availability, residency regulations and revenue sharing, also disparaged the choice of Owens for a match with implications on Wales' quarter-final hopes.

This past week, the tier one teams backed proposals to play midweek matches in the 2015 World Cup in England to help tier two and tier three teams receive fairer schedules.

Fuimaono-Sapolu tweeted after the hearing: "I do not want to play rugby anymore. My children definitely won't be. I'm so grateful with the many people who were at the hearing."