The ethical quagmire that is schoolboy rugby has been further muddied with Auckland powerhouse St Kentigern College being excluded from next year's Auckland 1A First XV competition.
The stunning turn of events has seen a coalition of schools agree to boycott playing St Kents because of their recruitment policy that has been deemed morally and ethically reprehensible by rival schools.
The fee-paying independent school admitted to recruiting five senior elite players from rival 1st XVs to bolster their squad for 2019.
The Herald understands King's College, another independent fee-paying school, was also put on notice but they have agreed to enact changes to their rugby programme.
"It's a serious issue and it needed a serious response," Mount Albert Grammar School principal Patrick Drumm said. "We needed to take a strong leadership stand as a recruitment strategy like this is not what school sport should be about.
"The integrity and credibility of the competition is challenged by targeting elite players from around the country. We felt the time was right to try to have a moral and ethical discussion and while we had a positive meeting with King's that wasn't the case with St Kents."
The rival principals wrote to Head of St Kentigern College David Hodge on three occasions on November 5, November 26 and as recently as Monday. On each occasion they have been disappointed with the response.
The initial letters invited St Kents to bind themselves to new principles and codes around the recruitment of talent. The last letter was more strident.
"The 10 schools who have led the conversations with you are now of the view that they have given you fair opportunity to respond," the letter states. "It is the immediate decision of each of our schools that in 2019 our 1st XV rugby teams will not now compete against St Kentigern College."
Hodge was contacted for comment but was not available for immediate comment.
The position of the 10 Auckland schools has been broadly supported across the country.
Napier Boys' High School principal Matthew Bertram said what St Kents had been doing was "brazen" and unprecedented and the Super 8 schools he was chair of supported the move.
Napier BHS, who made the final of the national champs this year, have seen their halfback "recruited" by St Kents for next season and although it was disappointing, Bertram said the issue was wider than that.
"They'll [St Kents] just say the family approached them," Bertram said. "That's their party line."
Bertram said that put families in the awkward position of having to lie to maintain the party line and to not burn bridges.
"It's a seductive opportunity. I understand that," Bertram said of the opportunity to board at a private school, "but if they say the educational opportunity is manifestly superior, I have evidence to the contrary."
Bertram said private schools like St Kents were tilting the playing field and going against what building a programme should look like.
'They're not building from the ground up, from year nine to 11. They're going after the superstars and it's brazen."
St Kents were stunned last year when, after emerging through the first phase of the 1A competition undefeated and firm favourites to be crowned champions for the third time in four years, they were defeated at home by St Peter's College in the last minute.
Their aggressive and unprecedented recruitment drive in the last few months is seen by the other 1A schools as a direct response to their failure to win the 2018 title.
There are College Sport, who administer school sport in Auckland, bylaws that restrict schools in the 1A competition from excessive poaching within the wider Auckland region. But St Kent's have circumvented these rules by recruiting from outside the Auckland region and have offered full scholarships to established 1st XV players from Rotorua Boys' High School, Napier BHS, Whangarei BHS, Massey High and St John's in Hamilton.
The non-private schools in the Auckland 1A competition have been increasingly concerned about the integrity and credibility of the competition being eroded and at a meeting late last month the 1A schools agreed on a new set of guiding principles.
At the heart of the new document was a proposal to extend the current rules to apply nationwide. That would mean schools in the 1A can't field more than two players in their team who played for another First XV anywhere in New Zealand.
Those new players would also have to stand down for six games in their first year at the new school and would be ineligible to play in the knock-out rounds of the competition.
St Kentigern refused to sign the new document. King's have signed the guiding principles document but have not agreed to boycott playing St Kents.
Drumm says the 1A door remains open to St Kent's, but only if they are willing to reach some kind of agreement.
New Zealand Rugby this year announced a wide-ranging review into secondary school rugby, with many believing it is a self-serving power-grab to take control of the 1st competitions away from principals.
Whatever the motives, statistics have seen a precipitous drop in participation levels, even with the rapid rise of female participation.
One of the common refrains is that secondary schools have become professionalised and only those kids with a potential pathway in the game receive any encouragement to keep playing.
"Retaining teenagers is a challenge for us and there is work to be done by everyone in the rugby community to ensure they are provided with open, inclusive and fun environments and formats of the game that are relevant to them," said NZR head of participation and development Steve Lancaster when the review was announced.
There is another awkward element to this for the national body: for all the talk of rugby being a great egalitarian pursuit, on one level they like the fact that schools with fat sports budgets can do some of the high-performance heavy lifting for them and can turn out professional-rugby ready talent.
Regardless of where NZR falls on the St Kents issue, there is a growing belief change has to happen and it has to happen quickly.
One secondary school source spoken to who didn't want to go on the record in case it looked like a case of sour grapes, said the situation had gotten out of control. Some provincial state schools, he said, had started sending staff to the intermediate school AIMS games in a futile bid to run interference between the scouts of the big independent schools and the talented kids that would normally fall in their catchment zone.
When you are using already limited resources in that way, the source said, you know the system is damaged.
Another source who had worked in both the professional and amateur arms of the game for more than two decades said schoolboy rugby had developed "a corrupt mindset" that was filtering through to the kids.
"In 10 years' time we're going to be dealing with the fallout from this," the coach said. "Those ideals of putting your hand up, not out, getting what you earn, they're all going. Instead we're developing mercenaries who say, 'What's in it for me?'
"This is far bigger than New Zealand schools rugby at the moment… we're implementing and endorsing a system that's corrupting the game by selling its soul." - additional reporting Kirsty Johnston