CHICHESTER’S bid to establish themselves as a national-league rugby club has begun in earnest.
The Oaklands Park squad have already returned to pre-season training ahead of a campaign in National League three south-east that will test them like never before.
They have welcomed some Premiership experience into the ranks with the return to Chichester of Danny Gray, a one-time Oaklands Park starlet who has played for Bath, Bristol, Exeter and Worcester as well as the England sevens and universities teams.
Other new faces will be joining the ranks as a large elite squad build up to the season with two training sessions per week and a series of friendlies in August – with the league campaign kicking off at home to London Irish on Saturday, September 6.
Head coach and rugby development officer Rob Lawrence said their aim would be to do more than just survive at the highest level the club have ever played at – and he was confident they could.
Their promotion to the national network of divisions was clinched with a come-from-behind play-off win over Eton Manor at Oaklands Park, cheered by more than 1,000 spectators.
“Hopefully we can tune back into the recent successes we have had and keep making progress at a club,” said Lawrence.
“The people of the Chichester area really came out and got behind us at the end of the season when we were going for promotion and we hope they will continue to back us. That home crowd can be our 16th man and will be vital to us again this season.
“Since we went up I’ve had time to reflect and make realistic objectives and it’s all about establishing ourselves.
“I don’t want to look at it as just surviving, I think that’s a little negative. There are teams in our new division we’ve played before and are capable of beating. We’re already looking at games that can give us enough points to stay up.
“The aim must be to establish ourselves as a good rugby-playing team who deserve to be at this higher level. A mid-table position or something in the top six should be what we’re aiming for.
“If we can have that sort of season, we can then look at the following year as one when we might push for promotion and start challenging Worthing for the position as Sussex’s top team.”
Training sessions are being held on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Oaklands Park between 7pm and 9pm and Lawrence said any player who felt they had something to offer was welcome to attend one.
Friendlies have been lined up at home to Sutton and Epsom on Saturday, August 16, against Basingstoke – probably at home – a week later – and away to Bournemouth on August 30. Different combinations of players from the Blues’ elite squad will be used to give everyone a good run-out ahead of the league start.
Lawrence said he was delighted by 31-year-old fly-half Gray’s return to his roots: “It’s a big signing for us. He was at Chichester as a mini and junior – his father and brother were at the club too – but just look at the teams he’s played for. It’s incredible.
“He will do some coaching as well as playing and can be a great role model to players at all levels in the club. It says much about what we’re achieviing here that he was keen to come back.”
Moses Kasujja has retired from playing and Phil Veltom is still recovering from a broken arm but most of last season’s squad are still available.
The club will continue their close links with the university, while Lawrence’s Driving Force operation will be seeking out the next generation of stars through kids’ coaching sessions.