Exclusive: Fuimaono-Sapolu on Tietjens joining Samoa

Date published: October 15 2016

There is an air of expectation in Samoa after Sir Gordon Tietjens was recently appointed as the country’s new Sevens head coach.

This follows after the 60-year-old stepped down from his role as the All Blacks Sevens coach last month after a 22-year stint. During that time, New Zealand won four Commonwealth Games gold medals, 12 World Rugby Sevens Series titles and two Sevens World Championship titles.

Planet Rugby’s David Skippers caught up with former Samoa, Bath, Gloucester, Coca-Cola Red Sparks centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, who is now working as a lawyer in Samoa, to talk on his views on Tietjens’ appointment and the state of the game in Samoa.

Planet Rugby: What are your thoughts on the appointment of Sir Gordon Tietjens as Samoa’s new Sevens head coach?

Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu: He’s won 12 of 17 World Series titles. Any way one looks at this, you can’t help but be excited at the potential this appointment has. But Tietjens does not speak Samoan. You can have the greatest ideas in the world but if you can’t communicate it to people who do not speak your language, then you might as well talk to a toilet. The most important part of this appointment is bilingual Stephen Betham (Tietjens’ assistant coach), who also happens to be the genius coach who won the World Series – in 2010 – with all local players before any High Performance Unit (HPU) in Samoa.

PR: Tietjens has a proven track record in Sevens rugby and is regarded as the game’s best ever Sevens coach. What impact you think his appointment will have on the performances of Samoa’s Sevens team on World Rugby’s Sevens circuit?

Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu: Greatness is measured in the adversities one overcomes. Lets be honest, New Zealand pours more money into rugby than they do into child poverty. Coaching ‘limitlessly resourced New Zealand’ is completely different to coaching ‘we don’t have a rugby ball’ Samoa or Fiji. If he is successful with Samoa, then he can lay claim to being the greatest ever next to Ratu Peni Raiyani, and also Stephen Betham and Waisale Serevi, who coached Samoa and Fiji from under an organic coconut tree to World Series wins, without any money, heart rate monitors or mountain blast flavoured energy drinks.

Samoa is a different beast. You have to understand that every professional coach in New Zealand is the beneficiary of an intense rugby culture. Children start rugby at four or five years old. Kids here (in Samoa) start competitive rugby at high school.

High schools in New Zealand have state of the art facilities and more money than Manu Samoa. Our high schools use tree trunks for goalposts. Most players here have no boots. No ball. No mouthguard. Coaching in the Pacific requires far more depth in philosophy. Tietjens is lucky to have Stephen Betham right by his side. A great local coach who understands Samoa inside out and has proven that we can win the World Series with all locals and no money.

Then there is the fire breathing, coach eating, dragon that is the Samoa Rugby Union. We’ve had many great coaches before. The 2011 team, who beat Australia in Australia, was coached by Aussie McClean who later was an assistant All Blacks coach. Tom Coventry coached the Chiefs to multiple Super Rugby titles. Very good New Zealand coaches is not a new thing to Samoa, but where is Samoa right now? All the great work of a great coach can easily be destroyed by our union. Good luck dealing with them.

Much is being said about Tietjens bringing his ruthless fitness training to Samoa. New Zealand, however, have been comprehensively dominated by Fiji during the last three tournaments including the biggest tournament in the history of Sevens, the Olympics. As much as an opportunity this is for Samoa to develop, it is also a great opportunity for Tietjens to develop and match the new standard that this currently brilliant Fijian team has taken Sevens to.

PR: Recently, on social media, you expressed your dissatisfaction about World Rugby’s eligibility rules regarding Tietjens’ appointment. Can you expand on this?

Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu: Tietjens’ appointment emphasises how pathetic the rugby eligibility rules are. Tietjens coached New Zealand for 22 years. 22 years! And he can change countries and coach Samoa tomorrow, a country he has absolutely no connection to. But if a Samoan/Fijian kid plays one second for New Zealand, that kid cannot play for anyone else, even excluding the country of his/her birth and the birth countries of his/her parents.

We’re seeing Sevens coaches (the vast majority older, white, men) bouncing around from one team to the other, making big money off the immobility of players who are locked into a decision they made when they were young and poor. The argument against changing eligibility rules is always “it will be abused and people will chase money”. Actually that is what happens under the current rule. Rich countries entice young Polynesian players because they have the cash to, exploiting economic inequalities, and lock them in for life.

Quite the opposite happens when you allow, say for example, a former All Black, to play for the birth country of his parents. He is not a young broke rugby player anymore. He is financially secure and their decision is no longer an economic one. It is now purely about identity, the true essence of international sport.

If old white male coaches are allowed to coach multiple countries they have no connection to, then Polynesian players should be allowed to play for multiple countries they do have a connection to. It really is such a pathetic, malicious, unconscionable rule on so many levels. Stop being so fragile. Change it already.

PR: Sir Gordon Tietjens is highly rated around the world and was also on the Kenya Rugby Union’s wanted list to coach their Sevens team. That gives the impression that the Samoa Rugby Union was in a bidding war to acquire his services. What are your thoughts on that?

Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu: Put it this way. It was published in Samoa two weeks ago how much the highest paid government ministers and public servants are being paid. Gordon Tietjens will be paid more than the Head of State, the highest paid government official. Tietjens will be paid more than the Prime Minister of Samoa. Coaches are professional too. As much as we romanticize their service, they ain’t in it for the fresh Pacific air and cultural experience. A brother gotta get paid.

Coaching Pacific teams is actually very lucrative. That’s why all these foreign coaches come to the Pacific. Money. Put it together with the world’s healthiest organic foods, sandy beaches, coconut trees, tropical weather and the best human rugby resource on the planet, who wouldn’t want to get paid in paradise? If he plays it right he’ll probably leave with a matai title and some land too. If he fails then he’ll be paddling back to New Zealand with a teaspoon.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 11: New Zealand captain D J Forbes and Head Coach Gordon Tietjens pose with the London Marriot Sevens Trophy and the HSBC Sevens World Series Trophy during the Marriot London Sevens match between England and France at The Marriott London Sevens - Day 2 at Twickenham Stadium on May 11, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND – MAY 11: New Zealand captain D J Forbes and Head Coach Gordon Tietjens pose with the London Marriot Sevens Trophy and the HSBC Sevens World Series Trophy at Twickenham Stadium on May 11, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

PR: What are your thoughts on the management of Sevens rugby, and the game in general, in Samoa by the Samoa Rugby Union?

Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu: Since World Rugby started the High Performance Unit in Samoa, Samoa is now the lowest ranked Manu Samoa team of all time. Before the Samoan Sevens win in the Paris leg of World Rugby’s Sevens Series very recently, we hadn’t won a Sevens tournament for three years. And the coach who won it (Damian McGrath) had his three-year contract terminated after 10 months. It’s always good to go to a team that are doing poorly because even moving from last on the table to second to last is an improvement. Surely it can’t get any worse. Surely?