The debacle over what might or might not happen in Auckland First XV rugby next season can be sheeted back to what can only be described as lax rules regarding eligibility written by the New Zealand Secondary Schools Sports Council (NZSSSC) 11 years ago.
Although New Zealand Rugby (NZR) is the all-powerful governing body of our national game, it doesn't directly administer the game at secondary school level. That's left to the New Zealand Schools Rugby Union (NZSRU), which plays by the rules set down by the NZSSSC.
Back in 2007, and I quote directly from the latest NZSRU rules for the national First XV competition, "as a response to the increasing practice of students being offered inducements to transfer schools solely for the purpose of enhancing the school's sporting reputation, NZSSSC introduced eligibility regulations for the events it sanctions".
That's a promising comment.
It then went on to outline the reasons which were deemed "necessary to recognise the importance of consistency, equity and fair play" and to ensure "all the educational needs of the young person were being considered, not solely their sporting development".
Hard to fault any of that.
The regulations were put in place to maintain a level playing field by preventing the formation of "super teams" through "loading" with imported players, protecting schools from being stripped of players they had worked to develop, and "providing a pathway for homegrown players to get into and remain in their school's premier teams and not find themselves superseded by short-term imports".
So rules were put in place.
But isn't this exactly what St Kentigern have been accused of in the past week?
As far as can be ascertained, those rules written in 2007 are still in force.
And it's the eligibility rules themselves that are the problem. Here they are.
You must be enrolled as a bona fide student (Year 9 and above) and studying at least 80 per cent of a timetable for four weeks prior to the NZSSSC sanctioned event. That's right, just four weeks.
Now that ludicrously low threshold is probably there for Year 9 summer sports which may start qualifying for national competitions in term 1, but it allows imported rugby players to arrive well after the start of the school year to bolster a team during the season.
College Sport, which runs high school sport in Auckland, says you can't play for more than one Auckland school in the same season, but there appears to be little to stop out-of-towners joining an Auckland school during a season as say, an injury replacement.
But here's the clincher, and this is the rule that St Kentigern are using to their utmost advantage. Each First XV entering the National Championship – a championship preceded by a regional championship such as the Auckland First XV 1A competition – is allowed up to six players defined as "New to School". Such a player is someone who has been at the school for less than two years.
Think about that. A First XV, using rules designed to stop students "being offered inducements to transfer schools solely for the purpose of enhancing the school's sporting reputation" can have 40 per cent of their starting line-up made up of players who would have been offered inducements to change.
Those inducements might be nothing more than high-quality facilities or access to strength and conditioning training, but they are inducements. Mostly, especially in the case of rich private schools like St Kentigern, they'll be expensive scholarships funded by wealthy old boys' endowments and the big fees from international students.
The 10 principals who are ganging up against St Kentigern have every right to be peeved, but their anger should really be directed against the NZSSSC which drew up these pretty lax rules over a decade ago.
With the drop-off in secondary school participation now reaching crisis level, the NZSSSC, the NZSRU and ultimately, NZR should be stepping in to reduce, or eliminate altogether, this "New to School" status.
It's pretty straight forward. Instead of allowing players in the First XV who've been at the school for LESS than two years, make it mandatory that every player in a premier team must have been at the school for MORE than two years.
You can allow for genuine exemptions when a rugby player's family moves, or when the next Dan Carter or Sam Cane want to shift from a small country high school to a bigger school in the city.
But the elimination of the "New to School" status would put the onus back on schools developing far more holistic and inclusive rugby programmes. That is surely much better for the overall good of New Zealand rugby.