Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu: Rebel with a cause

By Steven Deane

Depending which side of the rugby tracks you grew up on, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu is either an unhinged agitator or a voice for the disenfranchised Polynesian bloc. Steve Deane traces the roots of his dissidence.

Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu. Photo / Jason Dorday
Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu. Photo / Jason Dorday

A poster of the 2005 Blues rugby development team adorns one wall of Sapolu Law's reception area. In the front row stands Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu. It's the only photo you'll find of the Auckland-born-and-raised Samoan international in an Auckland rugby squad. Despite being acknowledged as one of the finest young talents around, Fuimaono-Sapolu didn't last long in the union's system.

"You should just f***ing shut up," a coach told him during one of the team's first training sessions. "You do what I say on the field and f***ing shut up."

Fuimaono-Sapolu responded with an outburst of his own, followed by a letter to the Pacific Island players in the squad - written in Samoan and English and hand-delivered - suggesting they shouldn't accept such treatment.

He never played for an Auckland team again.

Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, 33, has always been a protester.

These days, the former Samoan international, now a professional player with Coca-Cola West Red Sparks in Japan, expresses his rage mainly via Twitter.

Few have used the medium more effectively, or controversially.

Fuimaono-Sapolu's contribution to a campaign fronted by TV3's John Campbell to cajole the All Blacks into playing a test match in Samoa was to publish a video alleging New Zealand Rugby (formerly the NZRU) would have happily pencilled Nazi Germany into the schedule if the money was right.

Campbell's softly, softly approach elicited plenty of platitudes within New Zealand, but it was Fuimaono-Sapolu's rant that was widely reported across the globe.

Such hyperbolic outbursts may be effective in drawing attention to his causes, but they aren't part of any cunning media strategy.

"It is never planned," Fuimaono-Sapolu says. "I don't plan when a thought comes into my head."

The Nazi-themed video message was filmed for Campbell Live but, unsurprisingly, never screened. The intention was to compile a montage of about 30 Samoan players calling on the All Blacks to play in Samoa.

Campbell dropped the idea when only a handful of players contributed videos.

Fuimaono-Sapolu clearly wasn't so keen to spike the project, issuing his video himself.

"It's absolutely preposterous," says Campbell of the Nazi analogy. "I wouldn't do it and I don't agree with it. And I don't think in a million years the All Blacks would have played in Hitler's Germany. But that's me and you talking. We work inside the tent. Eliota is not interested in being in the tent."

'He's a deep guy'

uimaono-Sapolu is just around the corner when the Herald knocks on the door of Sapolu Law. He's on his way back to the converted colonial-style house in Papatoetoe that would hands down win the award for the country's least pretentious legal office. He is on crutches, so getting here might take a while, his nephew Michael says.

Michael is the latest member of the family to earn his legal stripes. When he arrived in Auckland from the United States as a 7-year-old he didn't know the alphabet. He recently graduated university with a double-degree in arts and law. It was a teenaged Eli who taught Michael and his younger sister Zahra to read.

Eli's mother, Iuni, is Sapolu Law's principal. The matriarch of a family of lawyers, Iuni is in practice with daughter Josie. Eli, as anyone familiar with his narrative knows, is also a lawyer. It has been handy. When he likened his team's 2011 World Cup schedule to the murder of six million Jews, nobody could claim he was just a moron sounding off - he's a qualified lawyer after all.

"He's a deep guy," says Iuni. "He is my eldest son but I find him... different."

She means that in a nice way. Eli doesn't see things the way many of us do, and certainly not the way many professional rugby players do. Time spent in England playing for Bath and Gloucester nurtured his thinking, says Iuni. He emerged more self-confident, more certain of his view of the world.

Eli hops in on crutches, sizes me up, and agrees to talk.

His most revealing anecdote comes from his time as a schoolboy at Auckland Grammar. Fellow Polynesian students, he says, would come to him if they felt they were being treated unfairly. Eli would act as a mediator or, by his own admission, an agitator.

"I'd say [to the teacher], 'You're not being racist are you?' "

A clever student, star player in the 1st XV and captain of the basketball team, Eli seemed perfect prefect material. But prospective candidates had to win a student and staff vote. Eli didn't win his teachers' approval. His reaction to the snub was to refuse to shake principal John Morris' hand at an all-school assembly held to honour the school's sports captains.

Morris remembers the incident slightly differently.

"I went to shake his hand and he ignored me. I said, 'Excuse me' and in the end he did turn around and shake my hand. That [detail] wouldn't suit his story at all. As far as acting as a go-between for the Polynesian kids, I have no recollection of that whatsoever. There were no issues there at all.

"Look, it's an image he's building and he's been building it since school. That's Eli."

The suggestion Fuimaono-Sapolu is more Andre Agassi in his Nike years than Che Guevara (a handy centre for Argentine club San Isidro) isn't exactly fair. If he has established an image as a fearless speaker of uncomfortable truths, he's also nailed himself to the cross while doing so.

'A bit of a chip on his shoulder'

The price for speaking out against mismanagement inside the Samoan Rugby Union was the end of his international career. When he lambasted the blatantly unfair scheduling of matches for the minnows at the 2011 World Cup, the IRB tried him like a petty criminal.


Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu in action at the 2011 World Cup. Photo / Greg Bowker

Ostracised by rugby powers in the nations in which he was born and grew up, his reaction has been to insist they play each other in Apia. There wouldn't appear to be a lot in it for him.

"He is one of the least self-interested people I've ever dealt with," says Campbell. "He has cost himself a position in the Samoan team, he has cost himself any chance of another contract with the NZRU, and he doesn't care because he is doing what is right.

"Most people bite the hand that feeds. Eliota took to it with a chainsaw."

His former teachers at Grammar appear to be among those with missing limbs.

"He wasn't a prefect and with all his talents and abilities he should have been," admits Morris. "But he didn't exactly win the hearts and minds of the staff, or all the students ... He was a supremely talented young man, brilliant rugby player, brilliant basketballer, a very, very good student. With all those things going for him you think this guy could really make a difference. But I think Eli has always had a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

"I've got a lot of time for him because he is a talented guy but he is one of those young men who flies by his own rules. He has his own moral compass."

If he does, it doesn't appear that awry. When he's not playing rugby or tweeting, Fuimaono-Sapolu holds rugby clinics for kids in Samoa. His business interests include creating the first Samoan-language cartoons and DVDs teaching history from a Pacific Island perspective.

Not that he's a saint. His Twitter attack on England international Owen Farrell after a contentious match was pretty much a threat to sort things out in the car park.

"What goes on the pitch stays on the pitch? Don't use the pitch to showcase your FAKE toughness you pussy shit," he tweeted.

Followed by: "Good luck bro when you tour round my parts."

The English press was appalled. Despite being on a suspended six-month ban over his World Cup outbursts, Fuimaono-Sapolu escaped sanction over the tweets. He did, however, cop a three-week ban for mocking the RFU's judicial process.

"It's ridiculous," he says of rugby officials' fondness for restricting free speech. "It's just control, the colonial mentality coming out. You are supposed to be an island savage. You are savages and we have the power."

Being forced to front the IRB and "apologise" during the World Cup had opened his eyes.

"The whole thing was an absolute joke. But it was good because it showed me what rugby is."

As for the apology: "I didn't actually apologise."

An IRB official produced "a letter with lots of big words that sounded insincere and I just signed it to get out of there. I didn't mean any of it. The person who received the apology said it didn't sound sincere. Well, it wasn't. It was rubbish. It was all a facade.

"The IRB was one of the only sporting associations to maintain ties with apartheid South Africa."

'You cannot be silent'

Ah, yes, the bigger picture.

Fuimaono-Sapolu's already acute sense of injustice sharpens even further when the moral position of the institution dispensing the rules is questionable. It bugs him that others in his position either don't feel the same way, or don't care to express it if they do.

"It would be nice if a lot more athletes become aware that there is a lot going on, a lot of powers at play. If Richie McCaw said anything about the GCSB, the whole of New Zealand would be up in arms against it. They don't realise they have a lot of power, a lot of currency."

Perhaps some players are simply more mindful of the commercial and contractual imperative of their positions? Slagging off adidas, for instance, is high on the list of things incumbent All Blacks must not do.

"So what we have is a bunch of dumbarses who aren't allowed to say anything about anything. That is a problem. It is not biting the hand that feeds you, it is trying to elevate the game.

"A lot of rugby players have lost sight of the fact it is just a sport. At the end of the day we are just kicking around a ball. There are single parents who are struggling, 10-year-old Asian kids who are making our boots. And we get lost in our egos."

This propensity for speaking his mind comes from Iuni, the mother who bore him out of wedlock, putting her at odds with the conservative Christian values of many Samoans.

"For her you have got to be strong and you cannot be silent. But I am not perfect. I catch myself out a lot."

When Usain Bolt was subjected to questions about Palestine at a press conference promoting the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, outraged media critics said it wasn't right to subject a mere athlete to such questions. Fuimaono-Sapolu's Twitter feed is full of pictures and reports from Gaza highlighting the deaths of children.

"I just feel like it could be us," he says when asked why he is so sensitive to injustice. "If anything bad happens to someone, well, what if it was me?"

Fuimaono-Sapolu is no Dan Carter. He's not someone people will listen to just because of who he is. But they do listen. Tweets to his 20,000 followers are regurgitated by mainstream media. He achieves cut-through.

"Eliota finds his constituency brilliantly," says Campbell. "He inspires outrage and shock from people who were probably never going to support him anyway. But he grabs a whole lot of other people. He is speaking on behalf of a dispossessed, marginalised, alienated political class who don't have much clout and don't get their views in the media very often. He has worked out that the way to do that is just scream and sometimes say stuff that is just preposterous. He is an articulate, intelligent, passionate, informed, political man. He is great company, but sometimes you just want to grab him and say 'Eliota shut up'. But he is not interested in what a palagi member of the establishment thinks."

- NZ Herald

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