Chichester play their first-ever National League game on Saturday promising fans: We want to do more than just survive.
They welcome London Irish Wildgeese to Oaklands Park (3pm) knowing they are in for a tough season, but vowing to establish themselves at the highest level the club have ever known.
London Irish are newly-relegated from National two so are sure to give Paul Colley and Rob Lawrence’s Blues a baptism of fire, but Chichester hope the backing of a big crowd like the ones seen at Oaklands in the promotion crunch games at the end of last season will help them get a good start.
Head coach and rugby development officer Lawrence said it had been a hectic summer as the club strengthened the squad ready to face 13 other leading clubs from nine counties in National three London and south east.
He said: “We’ve brought in some exciting and promising new players and done a lot of work already with them, the existing squad and some of the club’s youngsters.
“In our pre-season games against Sutton & Epsom and Bournemouth, we’ve given 65 players a chance and it’s been a very useful exercise. We’re perhaps still one or two players short of the numbers we’d like because strength in depth is going to be vital.”
New faces include the returning Danny Gray, who has years of Premiership and National League experience behind him, young Welsh centre Kieran Mudd, former University of Wales back-row player Ed Bowden, county rugby league man Freddie O’Toole and Essex player Aaron Lowe.
Lawrence added: “We feel well prepared, but we will need to be in this league.
“I can see there being one or two teams who will rise above the rest, a couple who will struggle and a group of eight or so in the middle.
“We need to be in that middle group and I’d like to think we could potentially finish anywhere from third to tenth.
“I don’t like the word survival. This season is about establishing ourselves at this level and building a platform from which to develop further.”
Lawrence appealed to the people of the Chichester area to get behind the team as they had done so effectively at the end of the promotion-winning campaign.
“Some say we had 1,800 here for the play-off win over Eton Manor and we’d like as many as possible to return on a regular basis, and others to come, too. They’ll be our 16th man and we hope to take odd numbers on our coaches to away games as well,” he said.
The Blues will face several very long journeys, but their home record is excellent, with just five games lost out of 39 in the past three seasons.
Others in the league are East Grinstead, Tonbridge Juddians, Guernsey, Bury, Tring, Civil Service 1863, Amersham & Chiltern, Westcliff, Gravesend, Hertford, Westcombe Park, Barnes and London Irish.
East Grinstead, Tonbridge Judds, Guernsey and Irish are known to have considerable resources and are likely to set the pace.
The Blues’ first XV will again be underpinned by a fine second XV, who have also been promoted to a new demanding league.
The Blues last played the Irish in January 2011 and played brilliantly to win 33-14. They were on fire from the kick-off that day and would love to repeat it.
Promotion to the national arena has been hard-earned after four terrific seasons – now comes the hard work... and exciting times.
STEVE BONE & ROGER GOULD