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Springbok centre Fleck signs with Bath

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

Fleck, who last featured in a Bok jersey against England at Twickenham in November 2002, played for the SA 'A' team this year, but has not come close to the Test-match squad, despite coach Rudolf Straeuli changing his midfield combination in every game in 2003, with six players used in the centres thus far.

"Robbie's looking forward to this new chapter in his career," said Fleck's agent Dale Jackson to Planet Rugby.

"He's had a great time in South Africa, playing for the Springboks, the Stormers and Western Province, but it's time to move on, and, who knows, it may not even be the end of his Bok career."

Planet Rugby has confirmed that although there is no specific clause in Fleck's Bath contract, he would be free to play for the Springboks – if he were selected, of course – but it would be fair to assume that this move could just be the final nail in his Bok coffin.

The 28-year-old Fleck has won 31 Test caps since his debut, but a serious ankle injury – picked up against the Wallabies in Perth in 2001, and some niggling hamstring injuries in recent months, have limited him to just seven appearances in the Green and Gold in the last three years.

Fleck first came to prominence in South Africa in the 1998 Currie Cup season, where his smart footwork and pace off the mark helped WP to the Final, where they lost to Joost van der Westhuizen's Blue Bulls. He toured the British Isles with the Boks later that year, making his Test debut against Italy in June 1999, before going on to feature in the World Cup where SA finished third.

He will forever be remembered for his outstanding display at inside centre against the All Blacks in a Tri-Nations clash at Ellis Park in 2000. After being dropped by Nick Mallett, in favour of Grant Esterhuizen, Fleck was given a reprieve when De Wet Barry picked up a hamstring injury, and he scored two wonderful tries, ripping New Zealand's much-vaunted defence to shreds.

Fleck, who was elevated to the Springbok vice-captaincy in 2001, joins an exciting backs division at Bath, with England incumbent Mike Tindall a key man at the Recreation Ground, along with midfield partner, Ireland star Kevin Maggs. Bath have also signed England Under-21 star Andy Higgins, while former England regulars Mike Catt, Matt Perry and Iain Balshaw give new coach John Connolly even more options, along with young goal-kicker Olly Barkley.

Bath will be captained in 2003/04 by physical England lock Danny Grewcock, although the Lions second rower is expected to be away on World Cup duty later this year, along with Tindall, new Scotland wing Simon Danielli, and possibly Balshaw, too.

Fleck is expected to play a key role in the absence of Bath's international stars as the West Country club attempts to bounce back from near-relegation in the Zurich Premiership last season, with some final-day heroics in the 2002/03 season saving them from the Division One drop.

There is, however, some hope with the arrival of 'Knuckles' Connolly, the former Queensland, Stade Francais and Swansea coach, to bolster their coaching ranks alongside Director of Rugby Jack Rowell and assistant coaches Michael Foley and Brian Smith.

While it remains to be seen where Bath will use Fleck – who can slot in at inside or outside centre, with a preference for the former – he adds to creativity to any backline, while the likeable 'Fleckie', as he is known in rugby circles, is bound to endear himself to the inhabitants of Bath.

"WP has been my chosen home for my entire professional playing career," said Fleck in a WP statement, "I have nothing but the highest regard for the brand; team and staff that gave me all my opportunities.

"I feel that I have achieved all that I can in South Africa at this time. I still have a lot of rugby left in me and need to capitalise on a new challenge that has been offered at a great UK club, Bath."

By Howard Kahn

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