Devaluing the game?

Date published: November 21 2012

Samoa centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu has earned a reputation as someone willing to fight for the cause of the underdog in the game.

Samoa centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu has earned a reputation as someone willing to fight passionately for the cause of the underdog in the game.

A qualified lawyer, the former Gloucester midfield back hit the headlines at last year's World Cup in New Zealand for speaking his mind on Twitter.

His language and references to some of history's worst atrocities might have been on the strong side.

But he is no mouthy whinger – a rebel without a cause à la Quade Cooper – and his point about bigger teams being given preferential scheduling treatment at World Cups has been rectified for the next tournament.

It therefore seems inevitable that the 32-year-old has strong feelings on the recent allegations made by former Racing M̩tro back-line coach Simon Mannix Рthat the Parisian outfit paid Fijian players to miss the 2011 World Cup. And Fuimaono-Sapolu wants clubs to realise how important it is for them to release players for international duty.

Although he was careful not to wade in with allegations of his own, Fuimaono-Sapolu said he was not surprised by Mannix's claims and pointed out the IRB's Regulation 9, which is the governing body's attempt to legislate the release of players for Test duty.

“The rules are unequivocal,” he told Planet Rugby in an exclusive interview.

“To keep players from representing their country robs not only their country but the RWC tournament of the best players in the world.

“The RWC is meant to be the pinnacle of rugby, where the best players in the world compete against each other having had the best preparation and are at their most fittest, strongest and under the most pressure. It's a celebration of the rugby world's greatest players.

“Quite simply when the best players are not there, it's not the best tournament. Not to mention the hopeful children who wake up at ungodly hours to support their countrymen.

“It's a lose-lose (situation). It really is a blight on the game.”

Powerful words indeed but this is hardly surprising as Fuimaono-Sapolu is no shrinking violet.

He believes the battle between clubs and countries is not as simple as it looks and said he was unsure whether punishing players or clubs, found guilty of breaking the rules, would solve the problem.

“The thing is not many players will tell of this treatment because they want to keep their jobs,” explained Fuimaono-Sapolu, who is currently plying his trade with Coca-Cola West Red Sparks in Japan.

“There are so many ways to 'entice' a player to make themselves unavailable for national selection.

“I don't know if a punitive approach though will solve the matter. More information and celebration of why it is important for players to be released should be the aim.

“Clubs, especially European clubs, need to see the huge benefits to the player, country and world rugby by adhering to this regulation.

“They need to know that they are doing a good thing. It's great for world rugby. It's great for the fans of Fiji and other countries.

“And it's great for the player. They grow as players and will return to the club better and hopefully, with success at the RWC, they return with greater publicity and attention for their respective clubs.

“It's a gain-gain situation. Players want to represent their country even if it is for peanuts. I guarantee, if you have deprived a player of representing their country, you're not getting the best out of him. He's just working. There is resentment in his heart.”

Fuimaono-Sapolu feels if the club versus country issue can be resolved then the game will be the ultimate winner – and that's not just in the feelgood sense.

Everyone knows that money talks, and ultimately makes all the major decisions in sport these days, and Fuimaono-Sapolu can see the financial benefits of giving the smaller rugby nations their due.

“Lots is said about money. I love rugby. I want to see it grow to the level football is on worldwide, but also to a competitive level where anyone can beat anyone. It's just because I love the game.

“The capitalists always talk about money. Well here it is. How much money does football make? Exactly. Loads. And they have the world's most popular game. Therefore, if you want money, then grow the game (rugby) worldwide.”

His skills as a diplomat may need a bit of fine-tuning, but as a policy maker he is difficult to argue with.

By David Skippers

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