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Christian Wade comparison has Wasps relishing Paolo Odogwu return

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Andrew Kearns/CameraSport via Getty Images)

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Exciting England prospect Paolo Odogwu is poised to play his first rugby match in eight months this Saturday after fighting his way back to full fitness following last May’s devastating ACL injury with Wasps. The soon-to-be 25-year-old lit up the English club game with his wonderful creativity last winter and it earned him a call-up from Eddie Jones for the 2021 Six Nations. 

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Odogwu came away from that championship campaign still uncapped at Test level and he was to seriously hurt himself during a late May league game at Northampton. However, he has since bounced back to fitness earlier than expected and is in line for Wasps selection for this Saturday’s European assignment versus Toulouse in Coventry.  

“Paolo Odogwu will have a chance this week, he will be someone who will be available for selection,” enthused Wasps boss Lee Blackett, who last Sunday masterminded a Premiership victory over a Leicester side going for its 16th successive win in all competitions this season.  

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“He has done really well. It is very rare that it is straightforward [the recovery] but Paolo has not hit many hurdles along the way at all and that is probably because, in everything he has done, he has been as professional as they come. He is just desperate to get back. I have been seeing him outside doing running over the last two months, just waiting for him to get back ready and we can finally unleash him this weekend. 

“Sometimes as a coach you want to play him straight away but we have got to be smart about this, he is coming back from an ACL. He has had three, four weeks of training, he has done really well. He is raring to go and we are excited to see him come back because he adds that little bit of difference, that point of difference, his physicality, his X-factor that makes him create something out of nothing.” 

It was last week in the lead-up to the Premiership match versus Leicester that Blackett spoke about how Charlie Atkinson had spent his four months out with injury researching the style of out-half game played by England skipper Owen Farrell and Richard Mounga of the All Blacks. Odogwu, though, is wired differently and apparently the last thing he wanted to do during his injury rehab at Wasps was talk about rugby.

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It’s all down to individuals,” explained Blackett. “Charlie is different in terms of his position and how he plays. We put extra time into him because of how young he is and his role in the team, how he is going to manage it. Sometimes with certain players – and Paolo is one – you just want them to concentrate on getting back fit and actually some players do not like to talk about rugby. 

“They don’t want to talk about it because of the pain they feel when they are missing out every week it is not worth going there. With some players, you just don’t bother, just let them focus on getting back as quickly as they possibly can and that is where we were with Paulo.”

What type of Odogwu is returning to the Wasps fold following his 2021 exposure with England before his injury? “He is more confident in his ability and because of it, he is a fraction louder. He is a brilliant personality, really well-liked amongst the group, and I just think he has got that air of confidence whereas before he was just consistently searching for it.

“Now he is just on it, he knows what his role is, he knows what his X-factor is and also players have massive confidence in him. You would have found when you had Christian Wade outside of you (before he quit rugby for the NFL), people would pass him the ball early. You saw someone like Christian and you just hit him. I think Paolo has now got that about him that players go… he is one of those players that you try and find as much as you can in the game because you know how devastating they can be.”

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The pressing question is whether Odogwu will now become an outside centre regular in the long term at Wasps or persist with playing on the wing, the position where he initially earned his stripes in the pro ranks? “He has been on the wing and 13 and that is the good thing about him, he can play both,” reckoned Blackett. 

“If you put him on the wing we have to try and find him with as much ball as we can, at 13 we can maybe find him a little bit easier. For us, quite often it can come down to what the team, needs most. I personally think he is a better 13 than he is a wing, he is really well suited to the 13 positions but we will play on either just depending on what the side needs. 

“There are big strengths in his game… we want our 13s to be ball carriers and so trying to get Pablo there we can get more consistency with our strikes as well off set-piece with him. He is really good over the ball as a jackaler and you get a load more opportunities when you are at 13 than you do on the wing.”

What would Wasps do if England boss Jones asked that Odogwu stuck with playing in just one position? “Generally, as a whole, it is one of those (positional questions) you have got to analyse. If the player is not that bothered, you always try and put the team first but also with the individual we want them to play international rugby.

“If we can help in any way we will but we will always do it not to the detriment of the team. I would always judge it off the player and if he was adamant he wants to be a winger well then he is a winger and we will just have to do that.”

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