Australia and New Zealand may consider scrapping their remaining Tri-Nations matches against South Africa if the Springboks insist on leaving their best players at home to keep them fresh for the World Cup.
Australian and New Zealand officials are furious that the South Africans have picked a weakened squad for their two away matches.
The three countries were to hold an urgent telephone conference yesterday as the row threatens to develop into a full-blown crisis that could jeopardize the future of the southern hemisphere's annual championship.
Australian officials are threatening to cancel the matches against the Springboks and organize an extra game against New Zealand unless the South Africans agree to change their mind.
However, they conceded that was unlikely to happen because of their existing broadcasting arrangement, and also because tickets for both matches -- in Sydney on July 7 and in Christ-church a week later -- have already been on sale for several months.
"Australia and New Zealand are looking at whether it's at all possible but I think the practicality is that it's not the case," Australian Rugby Union spokesman Brian West told the Australian Associated Press.
"There are so many contracts in place with stadiums, broadcasters and the rest. I don't think it's got legs," he said.
New Zealand Rugby Union chairman Jock Hobbs said he was concerned the row would undermine the future of the game and follow the same route as soccer where most internationals are reduced to "friendlies."
"It's a huge concern, a major issue," Hobbs told the New Zealand Press Association.
"We're talking about the integrity and meaningfulness of international rugby. It's critical, it's the very heart and soul of our game," he said.
Meanwhile, South Africa suffered a further blow yesterday when loosehead prop Deon Carstens withdrew from the side to tour Australia and New Zealand.
Carstens has been replaced in the 28-man squad by CJ van der Linde.
The South African team lost loose forwards AJ Venter and Luke Watson on Monday. Venter has decided to retire from international rugby, while Watson is nursing a rib injury sustained on his Test debut against Samoa.