A 12-year-old league player left the field in tears after being told she couldn't play in the team she'd been a part of for seven years because she was a girl.
McKenzie Anderson-Tito was playing in a tournament with the Ngongotahā U13 in Rotorua on Sunday when an organiser told her girls aged 12 and over were not allowed to play in mixed teams so she had to get off the field.
New Zealand Rugby League has apologised for the way the situation was handled and said an internal investigation had been launched.
But the organisation stood by its policy saying the maximum age for males and females to play together in a mixed-gender full contact rugby league was 12.
McKenzie's mum Cherie Anderson said she was gobsmacked as it was the first time they had heard of the "sexist" rule.
After noticing her daughter, who is the only girl in the team, had disappeared from the field at Puketawhero Park she challenged the organiser and was told it was because she was a girl and to look up the rules online.
NZRL's website said its medical council advised a "dramatic increase in risk of serious and long term injury for girls at this age are possibly due to hormonal changes in females during puberty and also the physical development of boys at this age".
An NZRL spokeswoman told the Herald it was too dangerous for girls to play against boys older than 12 due to them having a higher amount of testosterone and strength.
Due to McKenzie playing in a U13 competition the policy did apply, the spokeswoman said.
"Coupled with the increased offside metres, this places female participants at a higher or more significant risk of serious injury. The policy is based on medical advice that is in line with other codes and international standards," she said.
Anderson said when she read the rule she thought "wow, this was totally sexist".
"I can't believe this is still happening in this day and age," Anderson said.
She spoke with her daughter's coach who she said also disagreed with the rule and said they would continue to put her on the field.
But when the Ngongotahā U13s walked onto the field for the final game, she says the organiser stood at the sideline loudly announcing they would not start the game until McKenzie left the field.
Mortified and embarrassed, McKenzie walked away from her team with tears streaming down her face.
"She was totally alienated and walked off the field in tears."
Too upset to stay and watch her teammates win, the family left immediately.
"We'd had enough by the end of that. We just felt for our daughter, she was already embarrassed and we didn't want to hang around.
"There was no apology and the way the lady came across was terrible. She was really arrogant about it all and not really providing solutions to the problem."
Anderson said her daughter had been part of the team since she was 5 years old and still played rugby union in a mixed team. There were other girls playing in mixed teams at the tournament but in the younger age groups.
"I know my daughter's abilities and capabilities, her development is [as good] if not better than some of the boys that she plays rugby league against. I just think it is really unfair that she had to go through that and it (the rule) hasn't changed in ages."
The NZRL spokeswoman said they apologised for the distress and acknowledged the situation could have been handled more appropriately.
"NZRL has a duty to ensure the safety of all players participating in Rugby League; however, at no point do we wish to make anyone feel embarrassed."
Meanwhile, Black Ferns Honey Hireme-Smiler had gone into bat for the young girl, saying it should have been her or her parents' decision.
"If she can size it up with the boys then why not let her play," Hireme-Smiler said.
She said she played in a mixed rep team until the age of 15.
"It's frustrating that a lot of young girls weren't progressing due to being removed at such a young age."
Bay of Plenty District Rugby League chairman Graeme Hill was not at the tournament, but said the association was governed by New Zealand Rugby League who set the rules.
Hill acknowledged it must be frustrating from the mother's point of view given the child had played right through the grades, but the association had to follow the rules or "put itself in the firing line".
He said it was disappointing to hear the girl had felt alienated.
"I wasn't there and it probably wouldn't have happened that way if I was there to be fair, but obviously the mother has been a little bit disappointed about what was going on and I imagine there would have been - not a personality thing - but there are strong minded people in rugby league unfortunately - so they would be trying to push the boundaries."