‘We want to be a part of the community again’ – US Portsmouth RFC set to play first competitive game since November 2019
US Portsmouth return to rugby union action this weekend - their first competitive game for 22 months.
Head coach Nathan Moore sends his squad into Hampshire 1 action at home to Romsey hoping it will be the start of a happier era at Burnaby Road.
USP, formed in 1882, were forced to withdraw from London 3 South West in November 2019, after failing to honour three successive league games. WIth player numbers dwindling, they had also conceded over 100 points in losing to Reeds Weybridge.
It was a sorry situation for a club who, before the advent of league rugby in the late 1980s, regularly faced the likes of Bath, Harlequins, Saracens and Wasps in first class matches.
Prior to pulling out of league action - a decision reluctantly forced on the club before officialdom removed them - USP had spent the past decade yo-yoing between the national and Hampshire Leagues.
In 2015 they won the Hampshire title with 18 wins out of 18 - and in each of those games won a bonus point for scoring four or more tries.
Relegated from London 3 South West two years later, US bounced straight back 12 months later after winning the Hampshire League again.
Moore is now hoping the future is much brighter for a club who once boasted a first-class fixture list against some of the biggest clubs in Britain prior to the introduction of the professional era.
A succession of lockdowns gave USP the chance to take their time over building a squad ahead of their competitive return.
‘It gave us the chance to reset, to rebuild,’ said Moore. ‘While other clubs were trying to entice players to stay, we were trying to entice them back. It meant we could be a bit more focussed.’
Moore has kept hold of some of the players who appeared for USP in London SW 3 in 2019/20 - the likes of Sam Masters, Tom Shakespeare and co-captain Billy Rolfe, who is back after a spell at Portsmouth RFC.
Fly half Lewis Murray has also been appointed co-captain, while club captain Phil Gilliland has been persuaded to start playing again.
Moore is happy that USP will enter a new era in Hampshire 1, rather than at the bottom of the county pyramid.
‘They’ve come to the right decision,’ he said. ‘We’re at the right level.
‘We have players who played in London 3 - would it be fair, without sounding disrespectful, for them to be playing in Hampshire 4?
‘There would be a gulf in ability and it’s not fair on someone’s enjoyment, which is what it’s all about at the end of the day.’
Asked about the squad’s prospects for 2021/22, Moore – the head coach for the Armed Forces U23s – remarked: ‘Everyone judges success differently.
‘As a coaching group, we have our thoughts - we’ve asked the players for their opinions.
‘I think we’ll be able to play some good rugby, and winning more than we lose would be nice.
‘But having not been able to fulfil our fixtures last time, would it be a success to be able to fulfil 18 games this season?
‘We want to build the club back up again. We want to build an environment which players want to be part of and their families want to be part of.
‘We organised a NHS fundraising during lockdown, involving local sports teams like Portsmouth Hockey Club. That put the club out there, it showed we are coming back and we want to be a part of the community again.
‘We want to develop our own players. If we could develop players good enough to go on and play for a club like Havant, we would be doing our bit. But the goal is to develop players to stay at our club.’