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Samoa twitter campaigner avoids immediate ban

Updated: October 15, 2011, 02:19

AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) Samoa center Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu escaped an immediate ban and was allowed to play again after a judicial hearing on Saturday over 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 apologizes 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 give 100 hours of community work in Samoa for the country's high performance center within 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 told 3News.

Hours later, he posted on Twitter: "I do not want to play rugby anymore. One thing is for sure, my children definitely won't be.''

The misconduct charges stemmed earlier tweets. Fuimaono-Sapolu wrote on Twitter that Owens was racist and biased after controlling Samoa's tournament-ending 13-5 loss to South Africa on Sept. 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 recognized Fuimaono-Sapolu was angry or emotional when he tweeted, "however it did not justify his offensive behavior 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 favored one side or the other.''

"To suggest that Nigel Owens is racist against Samoans is also completely inappropriate.''

Fuimaono-Sapolu had been provisionally suspended by the IRB since Oct. 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 also was 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 defense.

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.

He first got in trouble with the IRB after Samoa lost to Wales 17-10, 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 apologized to the IRB on his behalf but he was put on notice.

While nobody condoned some of the language of his tweets, his ideas gathered increasing support, including from Samoa captain Mahonri Schwalger, New Zealand politicians and Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi, also the SRU chairman, who said he understood Fuimaono-Sapolu's position and described IRB attempts to muzzle him as undemocratic.

Tuilaepa, 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 to a match with implications on Wales' quarterfinal hopes, saying, "the choice was deliberate, the intention, obvious.''

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.

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