The playground fight over 1st XV rugby involving some of the country's most powerful schools is about to get a whole lot uglier.
A Special General Meeting of the Auckland Secondary Schools Rugby Union this month will see bylaw changes specifically targeted against the recruitment of players tabled.
Another far-reaching change is a bylaw that will allow schools to default up to two matches a year.
It has been suggested that change is in direct response to the potential of legal action by St Kentigern College after it was revealed that 10 of the 11 schools in Auckland's vaunted 1A competition planned to boycott them this year.
Head of St Kentigern David Hodge said, however, that "we have never considered legal action related to this area and are not doing so now".
Brett Kingstone, chairman of the Auckland SSRU, said the timing of the dafult law change was "shitty and I'll wear that one", but the reasons behind the bylaw change were more mundane.
Kingstone said in discussions with College Sport CEO Jim Lonergan it became clear that the rules around defaults were too punitive and encouraged schools to engage in unsafe practices.
Not only was the opposition automatcically awarded five competition points, but the defaulting team was penalised 15 points. A se cond default saw the team excluded from the rest of the season and the following one.
Kingstone said that put less well-resourced schools into positions where they felt compelled to play kids who were not physically or mentally ready for 1st XV rugby.
"What happens if you play an under-15 kid and he breaks his neck?" he said.
Kinstone acknowledged that the boycott situation with St Kents had triggered the ASSRU to bring changes to the default bylaw forward but it was not the primary consideration.
The other pivotal rule change is around the new-to-school rule. under the old law, players who transferred from another school from the Auckland, North Harbour and Counties manukau unions were made to stand down for the first six games after enrolment.
Kingstone said that "guiding principles" agreed upon at October's AGM strengthened that to include players from anywhere in New Zealand. Further to that, it is proposed that new-to-school players will from 2020 not be able to take part in promtion-relegation, semifinal or finals matches.
The move is likely to meet fierce resistance from moneyed schools as it essentially renders recruitment pointless.
Kinstone said it was an attempt by ASSRU to "move forward after we went through a couple of issues over the summer".
The move appears to specifically target St Kents, who have recruited five established 1st XV players to suit up for them in 2019, but Hodge was not being drawn on the matter.
"All participating schools are currently engaged in a review process regarding the 1A competition through an independent panel appointed by College Sport," Hodge said. "We fully support this process and like all other schools involved in it have agreed not to make any comment until its work is complete.
"We are keen to see all schools move forward quickly in the interests of the sport and the students."
The issue of player recruitment blew up in December after the boycott plan had been made public by Mt Albert Grammar principal Pat Drumm. The boycott was endorsed by Napier Boys' High principal Matthew Bertram, whose school plays in the Super 8 competition and whose halfback was taken in what he described as St Kents' "brazen" recruitment programme.
The SGM notes and agenda were shared with the Herald by a well-placed rugby source who was increasingly frustrated by the secondary schools inability to manage their own mess. He said the proposed changes were likely to see the issue "explode" again.
The source said it was time for New Zealand Rugby to step in and control those who could not see past the self-interest of their own schools.
"There are huge egos with these guys and unfortunately they don't necessarily want to grow the sport. It's all about winning 1A," the source, whose organisation was closely connected to school rugby but had no control over it, said.
"[NZR needs] to take a lead on this to ensure the governance structures are aligned to participation and any disputes are handled by independent bodies."
The proposed boycott of St Kents sparked a wave of debate about what school sport should look like and preceded a review on secondary school rugby by NZR.
Drumm said at the time: "It's a serious issue and it needed a serious response. 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 [College] that wasn't the case with St Kents."
Hodge then claimed that the stance was hypocritical and that the only thing St Kents did differently was recruit better players than other schools.
One school source said that the principals feel they can't back down from their boycott this year even if a compromise was found as it would give the big-money independent schools renewed belief that they could "play" the system without consequences.
Kingstone said he wasn't privy to discussions among the principals but the very fact the warring factions were now engaged in talks gave him hope that the 2019 season would proceed normally.