St Kents has been criticised by an independent judicial panel for "sustained" poaching of other schools' rugby players - but has won its case that a threatened match boycott by rivals was a breach of the rugby code.
The decision means the private Auckland high school can play in this year's 1st XV competition but it has to stand-down new-to-school players from outside of Auckland for the first six games of the season, and has additionally agreed to stand two of them down in any semi-final or final.
In December, the Herald revealed a coalition of schools had agreed to not lace-up against the high school due to an "immoral" recruitment policy.
In a decision released today, the independent judicial panel criticised St Kents for undertaking a sustained period of "annual" strengthening of its 1st XV.
"This has included providing scholarships for players to move from competing schools to bolster St Kents chances of 1st XV rugby success," said the panel, made up of barrister Tim Castle (chairman), former Auckland college principal Gail Thomson and former All Black Ian Jones.
The panel said St Kents had "strenuously denied targeted recruiting" but found the school had not adequately responded to "a changed mood" and concerns from other schools and the Auckland Rugby Union.
However, the independent panel also upheld a complaint from St Kents that a proposed new code of conduct by other schools, and a threatened boycott of St Kents matches if that code was not met, breached the existing rules.
"The new code was driven by 10 participating schools, and aimed at preventing excessive player recruitment. It used the threat of defaulting games against St Kents, unless St Kents agreed to new rules restricting their tactical player recruitment practices."
The panel said this code was unauthorised and in breach of College Sport Auckland rules and bylaws.
The new code sought to stand-down any new-to-school players - who had transferred from an NZRU 1st XV competition - for the first six 1A games plus any potential semi-final or final.
The panel said St Kents had intended to field up to three new-to-school players - established talented stars from provincial schools.
It said that a threatened default of matches by other schools would negatively impact on all 30 members of the St Kents squad, "a result that would not have had the best interests of the students at heart".
The panel upheld the St Kents complaint and went further, saying the school had not broken any existing rules.
However, it did not escape criticism.
"Relationships between participating schools have suffered," said Castle. "We find that St Kentigern is in significant respect the author of its own misfortune in not adequately taking on board the changed mood amongst the participating schools community."
The panel said other schools were not necessarily immune from similar allegations.
"Enough is enough," Castle said. "This practice must stop."
The panel said the schools had not fulfilled their requirements under current rules to resolve their issues.
To resolve the overall issue, the panel recommended that St Kents did not play new-to-school players for the first six games of the 2019 competition and the school, and King's College, agreed to this.
The other 10 schools rejected that option and still intended to default against St Kents. The panel found this another breach of the current rules but after further discussions with the panel - and in the interests of the competition - St Kents agreed to the stand-down for any semi-final and final as well.
The independent judicial panel criticised St Kent's for undertaking a sustained period of "annual" strengthening of its 1st XV. Photosport
"We reached a draft determination, we put that to the principals, they did push back on a number of our findings," Castle told Radio Sport. "We reviewed carefully what they had to say but ultimately reached the view that there were breaches of the rules by them.
"To be securing talent for the purposes of trying to secure championships and titles, and for no other reason, that practice is an unhealthy one and that's why we're so adamant that it should stop.
"We've certainly identified that there needs to be a change of approach and to be fair that seems to be absolutely behind the initiative the principals have taken and Saint Kentigern's response."
Chairman of the Saint Kentigern Trust Board John Kernohan said: "We welcomed the panel's appointment and have remained committed to following its findings."
"The panel confirmed Saint Kentigern has followed the rules of this competition. We also accept that over several years we should have recognised concerns about an advantage being gained through the enrolment of students and their selection for the 1st XV.
"The panel made an initial ruling that this issue should be resolved by having new-to-school players stood down for the first six games of the season, which we agreed to along with one other school.
"We have decided to also agree to a further call from the ten other participating schools for the two most directly affected players to be also stood down for any semifinal and final games.
"We are conscious of the impact this will have on boys who came to the College in good faith. But on balance and in the interests of bringing this to a close, the Trust Board has agreed to this extra step in the interests of allowing the competition to get underway and seeing students participate in their sport."