Sports

Dumb: Wellington Rugby apparently learned nothing from the Chiefs debacle

Wellington Rugby seems determined to say the bare minimum about Losi Filipo’s assault case. Jamie Wall says it’s time for rugby to stop looking the other way.

It was somewhat telling that the Wellington Rugby Football Union’s official statement regarding the Losi Filipo assault case and subsequent discharge without conviction was released at 10pm Monday night. However, if the WRFU were hoping that it was going to quell the anger of fans and the wider general public, they were wrong.

The wording of the release was weak at best and tone deaf at worst. The late-night timing didn’t stop more than 100 comments appearing on the WRFU Facebook post in 20 minutes, all slamming the union for its weak response.

They said “we do not condone violence”, despite allowing Filipo to stay on contract. There was no mention of the victims. They said they “were aware of the case”, despite not having uttered a word about it since it happened.

That last part is where the problem lies. I’m not here to judge Filipo. He’s already been judged, first by a court, and then by the public, with markedly different results. One thing is for sure, though: he’s a kid. It doesn’t excuse what he’s done, but it does mean he’s got plenty of time to try and sort himself out.

This is about the silence and obvious effort by the union to shut their eyes and hope this whole thing goes away. The WRFU unbelievably did this mere weeks after the Chiefs stripper scandal and the equally unbelievably poor handling of that incident by both the team and NZ Rugby. Anyone with a brain should’ve seen that simply saying “nothing to see here” isn’t going to work. It might have 20 years ago. It doesn’t anymore.

LOSI FILIPO (LEFT) FENDS OFF TJ VAEGA OF AUCKLAND. PHOTO: GETTY

LOSI FILIPO (RIGHT) FENDS OFF TJ VAEGA OF AUCKLAND. PHOTO: GETTY

The public backlash has been heartening in a sense. The outrage over this stuff is swift and decisive in the social media age. Unlike in the case of Chiefs, the condemnation of Filipo and the WRFU has so far been absolute, with fans ladling out heavy criticism and threatening to boycott games.

This isn’t just a rugby thing. Getting drunk and beating people up unfortunately happens everywhere. But when a body like the WRFU or the Chiefs decides it’s not worth confronting an issue until they have no choice, it sends a message to those involved in rugby: a message that it’s okay to punch someone, or to grab a girl against her will, because deep down, your team, your employers and a massive part of your culture don’t really care what you’ve done. As long as it goes away, we can get back to playing footy.

This is why the ‘81 Springbok tour happened. This is why one of the highest profile sports broadcasters in the country won’t touch the Filipo story at all.

I grew up in a rugby culture. It’s very much a family, which is why I believe the WRFU, to their credit, when they’ve said they’ve been active in supporting Filipo’s rehabilitation. That’s what families do. But the WRFU have also shown they’re a family by doing their best to make sure their embarrassing secrets don’t get out until the last possible moment.

I’ve been a Wellington fan all my life. It’s where I was born. Athletic Park was where I attended my first game. A couple of weeks ago I drove two hours in peak hour Auckland Friday traffic to go to Pukekohe and watch Wellington play Counties. I have friends in the current Lions Mitre 10 Cup side and despite living in Auckland now, I felt closer to the team than I have in a long time as they played out a thrilling victory.

Everyone deserves a second chance. Some even make it the defining moment of their lives. But I don’t know whether I’d feel the way I did the other Friday if Losi Filipo was on the field or even in the squad right now.

Sometimes being born a Wellington fan has felt like a misfortune. But that was always to do with the fact the team would make finals and lose all the bloody time. That all seems pretty frivolous at the moment. Now the misfortune is being associated with a union that tried to sweep something big under the carpet and hoped no-one would care.

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