Wasps flier Paolo Odogwu has broken his silence over his recent uncapped Guinness Six Nations experience with England. The 24-year-old was in the club form of his life when he turned down a potential call-up by Italy in the hope that he might instead be included by Eddie Jones following a winter where he set the Gallagher Premiership on fire with his stellar attacking play.

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Odogwu’s instinct was proven correct as he was included by England when they named their 28-strong squad for the championship. However, instead of going on to enjoy a fairy tale international debut, the Coventry-born talent wasn’t included in any of the five match-day squads and his non-selection became a constant criticism of coach Jones on social media.

The player himself has now admitted that so much of what was alleged online was untrue. However, lack of selection by England meant Odogwu went eleven weeks without playing a match, a gap that started with Wasps’ January 8 win at Bath and ended with a run off the bench in his club’s March 27 defeat to Sale.

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If he was frustrated by this lack of exposure at a time when he came into 2021 in eye-catching form, he didn’t show it during a lengthy Wasps media appearance ahead of their match this Sunday at home to Bath. Instead, Odogwu described being involved in the England set-up for the first time as an invaluable learning experience that he is keen to put to great use now that he is back playing in the Premiership, adding that he has nothing but enthusiasm for the encouraging promptings voiced to him by coach Jones.

“Coming back in I have realised that although I am still young I have got to set a standard now,” he explained. “I have gone out of the environment, I have gone to England and I can’t come back and relax, I can’t come back and think I can chill now. I have got to keep pushing those standards, especially now that I have come back and there are like 600 new academy boys here who I have never seen before.

“This is their first time being around me and me being one of the younger players but also playing a lot (for Wasps), I feel like I have got a responsibility to show them how you hold yourself in the environment and how to work. I feel I have definitely gained a level of confidence and also a level of responsibility within the club.

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“It was all really positive,” added Odogwu when asked if a parting message was delivered to him by Jones when the England squad broke up after the March 20 defeat to Ireland in Dublin confirmed a desultory fifth-place finish. “He was positive with me the whole camp. 

“He kind of took me under his wing almost in that he was constantly telling me how much he believed in me as a player and my ability, that I did have the talent but I just need to keep refining my skills and keep improving to get to my potential. One thing he said a lot is no one knows how good you can be.

“That was something I took to heart because you don’t and the only way you can get there is by constantly pushing yourself, so I feel like he was really good with me in terms of keeping me motivated and keeping me on the job and just making it seem like I was part of the squad, I wasn’t just there to build numbers. That is how I felt.”

Eligible for Italy through his father’s connection, Odogwu was courted over the winter by Franco Smith but he ultimately turned down their offer of a Test level call-up. Having been left uncapped by England, though, he is still uncaptured and could conceivable still represent the Azzurri if they came calling again, but Odogwu won’t be changing allegiance as he believes he has a promising future ahead under Jones.      

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“Definitely, England is the place for me,” he insisted. “I have been in the set-up and I know what I need to do to get into that team. I feel like I can’t run away from it now because I haven’t been picked (to play) in one camp. For me, it’s just to keep pushing and see how far I can get.

I had proper chats with Franco Smith and the Italy set-up and all their coaches and it would have been a great honour to play for them but I was like, ‘I know my own ability and I know I am good enough to be in the England set-up’. I had a week to make that decision and I said, ‘I’m going to back myself here’. I didn’t even know (at the time) I was in the England squad but I just had to commit to either side and I chose England and I chose right in terms of just believing in my own ability and hopefully pushing forward and getting into the team.”

Reflecting on the social media frenzy his lack of match-day selection by England generated, Odogwu dismissed allegations he was merely left holding a tackle bag throughout his eight weeks in camp, initially at St George’s Park and then at The Lensbury in London. “I did see it,” he said about the fuss his continued match-day exclusion caused.

“It wasn’t hard to miss because a lot of people have a lot of opinions. It was quite nice seeing so many people back me but you don’t take it to heart. I’m the only one in the setup so I’m the only one who really knows what was going on. It was nice to see but I felt there wasn’t anything really true being said. 

“It was a lot of not being picked and holding bags which wasn’t the case. Everyone there was training properly, everyone there was doing everything the same, so I felt like I was getting a lot out of it so to see people think I just helped out for eight weeks I was like, ‘That wasn’t what happened’.

“I found the whole experience a chance to step back and reflect on my own game because I was like, ‘I have done pretty well to get here but how can I keep getting better and how can I evolve my game because I’m not the finished article?’

“I knew there was stuff that I had to work on and stuff that is only going to make me better, so it was a great experience in terms of taking myself out of the Wasps environment where you finish a game, have a couple of days recovery and then you are prepping for the next team.

“When I didn’t play for five, six weeks or whatever it was I could actually have that time to pick at individual parts of my game that I wanted to improve and when you go back you can see those improvements.   

“We pretty much got a match-day hit in the Wednesday training (anyway), it was pretty full-on so I still felt I was getting that. You want to play but it’s one of the best teams in the world. I was happy just to be able to compare myself with those players and figure out I’m not too far off here, I can hold my own in this squad. I could keep improving while I was there and I felt like it was good for me.”

Apart from an injured shoulder in training around the time of the round three Wales match, Odogwu was involved in everything, including travelling to all the games even though he was never listed in an England match-day 23.

“We literally went everywhere together so I was at all the games which was nice as it was the first time I had been that close to the environment and seeing how everyone prepares, the warm-up and everything. Just being there was a bit surreal but it was also quite cool to experience. 

“On those days when you had the team playing, you had the non-playing boys do another session so you still get that fitness hit out of it. We were all training the same, we were all travelling everywhere,” he said, adding there were never weeks when he felt he wasn’t in with a chance of a debut selection.

“You never really knew, especially in training the teams would change a lot because we would train as a red and a white team and whoever was in those teams would shift quite a lot. So you would never really know what the team was going to be but I felt like I did have a few really good sessions where I was really building.

“I then took a knock to my shoulder which meant I missed a couple of sessions which set me back and I had to work my way back into everything. I didn’t have a week where I was, ‘I’m definitely playing this week’ and then I didn’t get picked. Obviously, you want to play and you look forward to the team selection, but I was trying to keep a level head throughout.

“I feel like it doesn’t just build your playing ability, it builds your character because it is not easy completely changing your environment and going into a completely new squad with completely new people and then pretty much living there.

“You had to learn to adapt and to be able to throw yourself straight into that environment to learn as much as possible. I did that quite well. I’m naturally a quite chilled out person, I like to keep myself to myself and I found I had to really try and chat to everyone as much as possible, especially with all the Covid regulations, not being able to have that social time… it will definitely help in the long run making myself a part of the squad.”

Now back at Wasps, there were fears that the swagger he exhibited over winter, confidence that culminated in an exhilarating display at Bath, would be damaged. That hasn’t been the case, thankfully. “I don’t feel like I lost it which is good,” he said. “I felt like definitely going into a different environment and training with that calibre of player you have to raise yours standards anyway, so going back to playing for Wasps I was naturally just trying to keep myself at that level and I felt like in the Clermont and Exeter games I was able to show that I haven’t forgotten to play rugby, I can still play.

“There are going to be certain things you do get a bit rusty on, like tackling properly because I haven’t had to make a full-on tackle in a while, but all in all I feel like I haven’t lost the level of confidence I had before. I still have that self-belief that if I see something is on I am going to go for it and just keep backing my own ability. I feel like I have kept doing that.”

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