The Southern Kings face the possibility of being expelled in their first Super 15 season after the South African Rugby Union launched an investigation of the newcomers on Tuesday for fielding too many foreign players.
SARU said it was looking into "a suspected breach" of its Super Rugby contract with the Port Elizabeth-based Kings, which stipulates South African teams cannot field more than two foreign players in a game.
The Kings picked New Zealander Hadleigh Parkes at centre in the 35-24 home loss to the defending champion Chiefs on Friday, while Argentine players Tomas Leonardi and Nicolas Vergallo were used off the bench.
"Jurie Roux, CEO of SARU, contacted Cheeky Watson, the chairman of the Kings board, on Tuesday to advise him of the inquiry and also to caution him against any potential breaches," SARU said.
SARU held an emergency meeting via a telephone conference on Tuesday and appointed a judicial committee to investigate the Kings, who responded by saying they had been led to believe that Argentine players would not be classified as foreign because of the presence of a team from Argentina in one of South Africa's domestic competitions.
Players from elsewhere in Africa who play in South Africa, like the Kings' Daniel Adongo from Kenya, are not considered foreign players.
"In the process leading up to the signing of foreign players last year," Kings chairman and Eastern Province Rugby president Watson said, "we were led to believe and even encouraged to sign Argentinean players ... with the understanding that they would not be considered as foreign players."
The two-player limit is a South African rule for its own teams and not enforced by Super Rugby organiser SANZAR across the three-country tournament.
Still, Watson said the Kings would now "submit to the guidance of the governing body of SARU" and he had been made aware of the punishments being considered for the Kings for fielding Parkes, Leonardi and Vergallo last week.
There was a range of punishments available if the Kings were found guilty, SARU said, including a caution, a maximum fine of 1 million rand ($NZ130,000), suspension or even expulsion of the team which is just three games into its Super 15 life after lobbying for years to be included.
The Kings' place in the Super 15 was already born in controversy after SARU relegated the Johannesburg-based Lions last year to finally make way for the newcomers from the south coast. The decision to drop the Lions came over a month after the end of the 2012 regular season when the Lions finished last and after months of indecision and attempts to get SANZAR to allow South Africa a sixth team.
The Kings also asked SARU last year to relax its limit on foreign players to help them in their first season, but the national union refused and maintained the two-player limit in a public statement.
"I am on record as having clearly stated that our treatment and entrance into Super Rugby, and the entire process to date, has disadvantaged us tremendously," Watson said on Tuesday.
The Kings squad is in New Zealand to play the Crusaders in Christchurch this Saturday, and then the Hurricanes in Wellington the weekend after, before moving to Australia to face the ACT Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels.
Parkes, Leonardi, Vergallo and another foreign player, Frenchman Virgile Lacombe, were in the Kings' traveling squad for the four-game tour of New Zealand and Australia.