The fielding of New Zealand centre Hadleigh Parkes, left, and two other foreign players by the Kings is said to be in breach of Saru rules. PICTURE: GALLO IMAGES

Johannesburg - The Southern Kings face the possibility of being expelled in their first Super Rugby season after the South African Rugby Union (Saru) launched an investigation of the newcomers on Tuesday for fielding too many foreign players.

The union said it was looking into “a suspected breach” of its Super Rugby contract with the Port Elizabeth-based Kings, which stipulates that South African teams cannot field more than two foreign players in a match.

The Kings picked New Zealander Hadleigh Parkes at centre in their 35-24 home defeat to defending champion Chiefs on Friday, while Argentinians 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 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 Argentinians 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 Argentinian players… with the understanding they would not be considered as foreign players.”

The two-player limit is a South African rule for its own teams and is 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 punishment available if the Kings were found guilty, Saru said, including a caution, a maximum fine of R1 million rand, suspension or even expulsion of the team - which is just three matches into its Super Rugby life.

The Kings’ place in Super Rugby was born in controversy after Saru relegated the Joburg-based Lions last year to make way for the newcomers from the Eastern Cape.

The decision to drop the Lions came more than a month after the end of last year’s 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.

The Kings are in New Zealand to play the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday, the Hurricanes in Wellington the weekend after, before moving to Australia to face the Brumbies and Melbourne Rebels.

Parkes, Leonardi, Vergallo and another foreign player, Frenchman Virgile Lacombe, were in the Kings’ travelling squad for the four-match tour of New Zealand and Australia.

The Mercury, Sapa-AP