Paolo Odogwu has been discussing his decision to play for Italy in a fascinating interview with the Telegraph Sport ahead of the World Cup.
Odogwu has faced a difficult time since he was first called up to the England Rugby training camp in 2021 under Eddie Jones. His ascension to the highest of heights in international rugby seemed well assured following an incredible couple of seasons at Wasps. He was expected by many to become the ‘next big star’ of English rugby.
Unfortunately for the now 26-year-old, his time in the international setup was not one that proved fruitful, after failing to be called upon for any matches during that year’s Six Nations. His disappointment continued shortly after the tournament when he sadly picked up an anterior cruciate ligament injury whilst playing for Wasps during a defeat at Northampton Saints.
Ever the optimist, the former Wasps player told the club website at the time: “This is obviously a heartbreaking end to probably the best season of my life, but these things happen”.
Following Wasps collapse in 2022, Odogwu found himself on the move to France as he joined up with Stade Francais in the Top 14. An inspired move it turned out, as it took the speedster away from the ‘kick and defend’ style of play that he was used to in England, and introduced him to a more expressive style of play.
It was from here that he found his Italian heritage fulfilled when he made his next move across to Benetton, which he describes as being “settled and where I need to be”, before adding, “I feel like I’ve found myself.”
His progression through the European rugby leagues has proved successful for the winger, with the man from Coventry heading off to the World Cup with Italy.
“Dwelling on the past, especially in sport and especially in rugby, can mess with your head,” said, Odogwu, discussing his current mindset. “If you’re thinking about playing badly three weeks ago and worrying if you’ll play well again, it can create a domino effect where you’re constantly in your own head. I’m always focused on how I can be better in the present moment and progress my future, which is the next week and the week after.”
Talking about his own past experience, Odogwu said England “is not even something I think about now. I’m embracing what I’m in now and trying to enjoy myself, as I probably was at the time, too.”
The change in playing style has clearly changed for the better in Odogwu’s mind, as he compliments the expressiveness that the Italian national squad is encouraged to play with.
“We want the ability to play from everywhere. Even our exit plays from kick-offs and when we receive the ball in our own 22, the first option is run.
“I’ve never played anywhere where that has been the thing. You are ingrained to have that license to attack, you want ball in hand. It makes everyone more confident and just excited to go out there and show their stuff, show their skills.”
Comparing this to his time in the English Premiership, Odogwu said: “Growing up playing in the English league, when teams like Sarries started to get success playing the ‘we’re going to kick and defend’ kind of style, there was a ripple effect and everyone was like ‘OK, this must be the way to win’,”
“Also, in England, the weather in winter is awful, so you can’t play expansively as much. It seems to be the pragmatic way of doing things. It’s 35 degrees in Italy now. Kicking is going to be hard work. We want to keep it in hand, look after the ball. That’s definitely been a refreshing change for me.”
He expressed his opinion on the importance of fast flowing and exciting rugby having the potential to bring new viewers into the sport.
“For a casual fan, if you flick on the TV, you are only going to pay attention for a couple of minutes, Would you be more interested if you saw a length-of-the-field try or some exciting stuff? Even if you don’t understand the sport, you’d be like ‘what’s going on, this is crazy?’ Or seeing someone setting up a box-kick, building a caterpillar and chasing?
“Obviously, the purists love everything. But they’re already fans. It’s about getting new people in. In this day and age, with TikTok and everything, people’s attention spans are so short. It takes one or two minutes before the channel changes. I don’t think teams have to change their playing style, but as long as there are five or six moments in a game where people go ‘wow, that was impressive, this is what rugby in this competition is like’, all it takes is for teams to clip up those moments and advertise them. That’s something that is done badly in rugby.”
On the future of Italian rugby, particularly referring to the upcoming World Cup, Odogwu spoke positively: “It’s on the biggest stage with everybody watching. Especially the last game of the pool, in France against France, which could potentially be a quarter-final decider. These are the situations we want to be in, which will test the evolution of Italian rugby. It’s a really exciting time.”