It's all change - mostly for the better - in Counties Manukau schools rugby, which kicks off this weekend.

Perennial heavyweights Wesley College First XV are hoping they have found a niche in the competitive Central North Island championship, while later this month we will see the kickoff of the First XV Cross-Border Championship, featuring four schools each from Counties Manukau and Waikato.

Wesley have won 21 out of the last 24 Counties Manukau schools titles dating back to 1992, when a certain Jonah Lomu bestrode the scene, though Manurewa have beaten them in three of the last five deciders.

Wesley principal Steve Hargreaves explains some of the background to the decision for his school's First XV to seek fresher pastures: "We got an invitation from the Central North Island group towards the end of last year to say that they thought we'd fit nicely into their competition. They are faith-based, boarding schools, some quite old and established schools. We bring a different type of rugby to that which they play, so we can add some variety and excitement."


The First XV, under new coach Jerry Leaupepe, who guided Wesley's Under 15s to the national title last year, are said to be very much looking forward to their new-look competition, which includes three other Chiefs region schools in defending champions St Paul's Collegiate, St Peter's College of Cambridge, and Francis Douglas Memorial College of Taranaki. The other schools are Feilding (Manawatu), Lindisfarne (Hawke's Bay), Wanganui Collegiate, Rathkeale (Wairarapa-Bush) and St John's (Hawke's Bay).

"We probably feel the level of the competition within Counties Manukau, other than Manurewa, has not provided us with the quality we'd have liked," says Hargreaves. "The other aspect is the travel, which will be a good learning experience for the boys to see other parts of the North Island and interact with students from these other schools."

Wesley has previously explored options around which competition would best fit the high level they bring as five-time national Top 4 champions. But the Super 8 - all boys' schools - and Auckland's 12-team 1A appear to be closed shops at this point. Wesley have dabbled in playing in club age grade competitions, as Otago BHS have done in the south and Whangarei BHS in the north, but the mix of boys playing against men is not always deemed satisfactory.

Hargreaves is expecting stiff competition for Wesley, and they will have three overnight travel matches with which to contend.

"I think it will be strong. St Paul's have been strong recently. Feilding have produced a number of All Blacks, Francis Douglas likewise. There's a lot of rugby pedigree there."

"Our expectation is that it'll be a great competition and provide exactly what we need," says Hargreaves. "Not everyone was happy within the union, but this is in the best interests of the players at our school."

Kickoff for the Central North Island competition will be June 4, with Wesley hosting St Peter's, Cambridge. The June 11 round two clash will see Wesley travel to Hamilton to face St Paul's Collegiate.

But before all that, Wesley will again play in the popular Chiefs Cup, hosting Super 8 side Tauranga Boys' College this Saturday. Manurewa are in the other Chiefs Cup pool, and will have a stern test to open on Tuesday, hosting Super 8 champions Hamilton BHS.

The Counties Manukau union did not sit on their hands when they were informed that Wesley had gone south for their rugby in 2016. The departure of their top side could have been like North Harbour losing Westlake BHS from their competition. Manurewa would have had a free hand to the championship.

Counties Manukau RFU operations manager Dameon Chaney picks up the story: "There were originally discussions with North Harbour. We would ultimately like to see a wider-Auckland competition, but the 1A competition model is not broken, so they are happy with how things are. We thought we could combine with North Harbour, but a couple of schools didn't want to play Wesley. Wesley themselves were already in talks with Central North Island and went that way. That's Wesley's prerogative and hopefully we can have them back down the track. The door is never closed on a school like Wesley and we wish them luck."

So talks were opened with Waikato, where their competition is problematic as the best rugby schools play either in Super 8 or Central North Island, leaving the likes of Matamata College to play the Hamilton BHS Third XV. There was thought given to expanding to include most of the Chiefs unions, but Bay of Plenty, in particular, and King Country and Thames Valley were already set in their schools' structures.

The upshot is that Waikato and Counties Manukau have teamed up, they have secured a major naming rights sponsor (Rainbows End) and appear to have come up with an eight-team competition that will prove meaningful and competitive on the field. The four Counties Manukau schools are Manurewa, who will be favourites, Rosehill, Pukekohe and Alfriston, while from Waikato come Cambridge HS, 2014-15 national Top 4 co-ed finalists, St John's, Te Awamutu and Matamata.

"I bumped into a few players from Manurewa First XV and they are really excited. They have a SKY-televised game on May 28 against St John's," says Chaney. This will double as a Chiefs Trophy fixture.

Chaney and the Counties Manukau union also hope that this competition will help slow the exodus of top player to rugby scholarships at bigger, more well-resourced schools.

There will still be a Second XV Counties Manukau competition, where Wesley Seconds will play the First XVs of the likes of Waiuku, James Cook and Papakura.

Counties Manukau have already entered lower grade school sides in a wider-Auckland competition (U69kg) and have three teams playing in Auckland's Under 60g grade. So the landscape of schools rugby in the greater Auckland area, a region of strategic interest to New Zealand Rugby, which is keen to boost boys' playing numbers, is gradually changing.

Chaney thinks this new First XV Cross-Border Championship will fill a need for the schools.

"Ultimately we want to find the best competition for our schools and we'll always keep an open mind on where that might be."

This Saturday's second-tier Chiefs Trophy (and Bowl) competition opens with Cambridge HS Second XV hosting Waiuku First XV, and Hamilton BHS Second XV welcoming Pukekohe (both 11am kickoffs), while at midday Alfriston play St Peter's of Cambridge, and Rosehill host Hauraki Plains.