‘The best things come in small packages’ is a description befitting Paolo Odogwu, the rugby player, and equally the Tortellini pasta that shaped his Italian-influenced upbringing. Either way, over time the 26-year-old’s mixed ancestry has given him plenty of food for thought when it comes choosing the right path to Test rugby.
After deliberating about which way his allegiance should lie – to the country of his birth, England, or the land of his father, Italy – Odogwu, 5ft 9ins and a chunky 15-and-a-half stone, has finally banked on the blue of the Azzurri as the best route to the top. Odogwu also has Nigerian blood, from his mother’s side, but playing for the team ranked 69th in the world was never an option, for obvious reasons.
Two years ago it seemed certain England would hand him his first cap. Then head coach Eddie Jones liked Odogwu enough to bring him into the 2021 Six Nations squad but not enough to include him in any of his matchday 23s. Odogwu was playing out of his skin for Wasps at the time, having shifted to outside centre from the wing, but the one-time England U20 international never got the chance to translate that ability to senior level.
Flattered to be involved but frustrated at the same time, Odogwu knew he could effectively kiss goodbye to his chances of playing for England when he took up Stade Francais’ offer of a medical joker contract offer in November, shortly after Wasps had gone bust. At the time, though, it was a case of needs must: winter and spring in Paris or continue feeling stung by what had happened and potentially still be out of a job.
“I didn’t want to miss out on the experience of playing and living in Paris,” Odogwu tells RugbyPass+. “Stade is historically one of the biggest teams in the world and I thought, if I can have that on my CV that is only going to be good for me.
“But if you told me I would be sitting in a flat in the centre of Paris at this time of year, I’d have been like, ‘wow, what’s going on, am I on holiday?’ It’s been a rollercoaster of a year but I’ve landed on my feet, thankfully.”
As an art lover and fashionista, there really was no other choice to make. But the move to Paris has come with added benefits; it has broadened his rugby horizons beyond the straitjacketed world of English rugby and the Premiership, and gave him the self-belief that playing in a foreign land wasn’t so difficult as he may once have imagined.
My grandma lives in Nigeria but she is the ultimate Italian cook. She handmade Tortellini for us, she spent like three days in the lead up to Christmas doing parcel by parcel.
When we say foreign, we mean France, not Italy, who have included Odogwu in their wider Rugby World Cup 2023 training squad. Italy may be foreign in tongue but in terms of culture, Odogwu knows he will feel right at home once he attends his first training camp at some point in July. The exact date is not yet known due to Stade Francais’ ongoing bid to win their first Top 14 title since 2015.
“My dad (Stefano) was born in Italy and lived there and moved to Nigeria later,” he says.
“Growing up, it was a massive part of my life. Every Easter we would go to Italy to see my dad’s family, they lived in Bologna, and we’d hang out with them.
“Italy is probably one of the places I’ve been to most on holiday, and just through general travelling.
“My grandma lives in Nigeria but she is the ultimate Italian cook. She handmade Tortellini for us, she spent like three days in the lead up to Christmas doing parcel by parcel. She loves cooking and she taught my mum all her Italian recipes so I literally grew up eating loads of Italian and Nigerian food.
“It is quite cool to now, potentially, be able to represent the country that played a big part of my life growing up.”
Helping Stade Francais win the Top 14 and Italy qualify for their first-ever Rugby World Cup quarter-final would be some story for Odogwu to tell in a season when rugby has learnt some uncomfortable truths as a sport and a business.
Given the Azzurri have been drawn in Pool A with three-time champions New Zealand and hosts and the world’s number two team, France, the latter ambition would seem fanciful. But if this year has taught Odogwu anything, it is to expect the unexpected.
Reflecting on the Wasps situation when Odogwu was one of 167 players and staff laid off, he told Le French Rugby Podcast: “It was crazy. We are sitting there watching the whole Worcester thing unfold and they are basically saying to us, ‘that’s not going to happen to us, we’ll be fine, we are Wasps, one of the, historically, biggest clubs in England, in Europe’. We were like, ‘cool, it’ll be sweet’.
“And then, literally two weeks later, after the Worcester thing, we were meant to be playing Exeter on the Saturday and we get called in on the Thursday and we’re told we’re not playing the game this weekend, we can’t have the insurance and to take a few days off. I was like ‘this isn’t good’.
“We came back in the next week and we had the infamous redundancy meeting when the administrator walks in and his first line was, ‘I was hired to do this job and you have all been made redundant’. The life was sucked out of the room, I’ve never felt anything like it and hopefully never will again.
“Getting hit by that bombshell straightaway was wild. It was so surreal to be saying goodbye to people in October, four games into the Premiership season.
“Having that ripped away from you and wondering ‘what am I doing now?’ to then moving country and having to figure all that out and going into a completely different league in the middle of the season, there’s been a lot going on.”
I went to watch the England-Italy game at Twickenham this year and it looks like a completely different team to the Italy of maybe 10 years ago.
With Joe Marchant signed for next season and Stade’s foreign quota filled, Odogwu is in the process of sorting out where his paycheques will come from beyond the end of next month. Had it been possible, he’d have loved to have stayed in Paris, surrounded by art and inspirations for his Composure Club clothing brand.
“Paris is almost a different world. I live just around the corner from Notre Dame. It is such a cool city and there is so much to do. You can literally wander around and you’ll walk into a live band playing in the street, you can walk down the Seine and there’s all the scenery and architecture, all the art galleries, all the shops …”
Ironically business partner and friend, Jacob Umaga, and fellow former Wasp, Brad Shields, were two of the first familiar faces he bumped into once his French adventure started, literally so in Shields’ case.
Having made his debut in the European Challenge Cup against Umaga’s Benetton side, Odogwu came off second-best to back-rower Shields.
“Everything was going well and I had settled into the country and then I got injured against Perpignan. It was actually Brad Shields who tackled me from the front and someone tackled me from behind and I ended up rolling my ankle,” he says.
“I was out for two months in January, during the whole of the Six Nations. It was annoying because I was just getting into it, I’d had my first Top 14 start a few weeks before and I was like, ‘I am feeling good now’.
“It could have been more serious than it was because if I’d have had to have surgery, it would have been three months out.”
Odogwu’s Top 14 debut came in Racing 92’s impressive Paris La Défense Arena, the largest indoor stadium in Europe. For anyone privileged enough to be there let alone play there, it is a sight to behold on matchday with its superb light show and imagery.
That said, Odogwu says every week on the Top 14 circuit feels special because of the way the fans embrace the teams.
“With the whole thing that happened at Wasps I hadn’t played for a month and a bit and my first game (against Benetton) was a home game. When you get off the coach all the fans are there with big drums and flares and stuff, it is such a cool atmosphere and I was buzzing when I got to the stadium. I was like, ‘I have missed this so much’.
“The level of support and the passion, you can feel it. It is different from club to club but you can always feel the energy and the commitment of the crowd, that’s always the same.
“If you’re paying to watch something, you want to see a show, you don’t want a boring event. The more exciting the whole spectacle is, the more the fans are into it, and that can only be better for us, as players, and as a sport in general.”
Italy’s renaissance from Six Nations easy-beats to a team on the up, one to have upset Wales and Australia in the past year-and-a-bit, makes the Azzurri squad an exciting one for Odogwu to join once his Stade commitments have run their course.
You’re going in at the deep end, potentially, with my first two games being against All Blacks and France but it’s a fun challenge.
“They are really coming into their own as a team and it is really exciting to watch,” acknowledges the Coventry-born player.
“They obviously beat Australia and then Wales last year and you’re seeing all these young players breaking into the team and everyone has almost got a new fire lit under them.
“I went to watch the England-Italy game at Twickenham this year and it looks like a completely different team to the Italy of maybe 10 years ago.
“Now it’s well-oiled machine, they are looking solid, the attack is really good and they play expansive rugby which is how I like to play so it’s good for me to go into a team that is looking to score tries and play wide. I feel like I can add to that and hopefully I get the chance to do it.”
When Azzurri head coach Kieran Crowley came to Wasps to observe training last September on the invitation of S&C coach Pete Atkinson, Odogwu could never have imagined he would be in Paris and possibly months away from playing on the game’s biggest stage.
“Having seen how the French crowds are around club rugby, and to potentially play against them in a home World Cup would be mental, it would be really cool to be a part of that, and to play against the All Blacks as well,” he says.
“You’re going in at the deep end, potentially, with my first two games being against All Blacks and France but it’s a fun challenge. It would be some story if we came out of that pool but you never know.”2023-06-01T07:32:01Z dg43tfdfdgfd