Blow for Britain as Walker switches codes to join Bath

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Great Britain have lost a player who would have been part of their plans for the next five years or more with the decision of Chev Walker to switch codes to Bath. The Leeds centre has confirmed that he is taking up a three-year contract with the rugby union club at the end of this season.

"After eight seasons at Leeds Rhinos, it is time for a new challenge, with the end of my contract coinciding with my 24th birthday," Walker said. "Rugby union offers a new stage at club and potentially international level. Having decided to switch codes, Bath offers the promise of an exciting brand of rugby at a traditional union club with a great heritage."

Walker has opted for union rather than pursue possible opportunities in Australia, where Melbourne Storm and the new Gold Coast club were both interested in signing him.

In England, Wigan were keen on him, especially since the appointment of Brian Noble, the coach who has picked Walker for the last two Tri-Nations tournaments.

Walker has won six caps for Great Britain, all as substitute playing primarily in the pack, and another six for England. He has spent all of his professional career at Leeds, although that was interrupted in 2003, when he was sentenced to 18 months in a young offenders' institution for his part in a brawl outside a night-club. Since his release, he has become a key member of the Rhinos, including playing in their Super League Grand Final victory in 2004.

He joins two other local products - Mark Calderwood, to Wigan at the end of last season, and Richard Mathers, to Gold Coast at the end of this - who have disembarked from Gary Hetherington's ship at Headingley to seek greater reward elsewhere.

He is the first high-profile league defection to union since Andy Farrell, who has yet to play a game for Saracens because of injury, at the start of last season. In the opposite direction, players like Iestyn Harris, Henry Paul and Nathan McAvoy have all returned to their league roots over the past two seasons.

Like Farrell, Walker's deal is part-financed by the RFU, which points to an early England baptism in next year's Six Nations. The Bath director of rugby, Jack Rowell, appealed, however, for patience as he settles into an unfamiliar game.

"Chev is a young player of proven skills in the cauldron of Super League," Rowell said. "He is a quick, powerful and skilful player who will reinforce the Bath back-line."

Meanwhile, the two obvious favourites have been kept apart in the draw for the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup, with the giant-killing Hull Kingston Rovers given the hardest possible task, against St Helens, who have lost only one game this season.

Challenge Cup semi-finals: Leeds v Huddersfield; Hull KR v St Helens. Ties to be played on weekend of 29-30 July.