David Odiase is 20 years old, and plays as flanker for the Italian U20 national team. As of the 2022/23 season he is part of the Oyonnax Espoirs in ProD2, a club that will likely conquer the promotion to the infamous top french tournament, the Top14.
Reading time: 15′
In this interview, curated by Marco Serraiotto and Luca Riva, we wanted to delve deep into the path that led David to grow into the talented player we see today, highlighting the differences between French and Italian rugby as perceived by him in his playing experience.
David, let’s break the ice: if they were to call you up to act in a war movie, and your role was to give a speech to the army before battle, would you like to be in a remake of:
– the lord of the rings
– the gladiator
– game of thrones
The Gladiator (no hesitation).
Tell us about your origins: your first club, how did you get close to rugby?
“I started playing when I was 8, with the Crema Rugby club (north of Italy). I was playing football at the same time, I always practiced two sports at a time until I got into the rugby national academy in Milan. During the second year I started playing in Colorno (a domestic side) where I have been aggregated to the senior squad. In my Top10 debut (the domestic league) I won Man of the Match. Subsequently, I had the luck to be called up by the National U20 selection and play with other boys from the elite pathway which came from other Top10 sides or federal academies. Some of them even had the chance to play with Benetton Rugby in URC. Those with Colorno were great seasons, full of personal and team successes, it was an honor to be part of it. With the national team we achieved two wins against England, then also against Wales and Scotland. Sadly I was then ruled out due to an injury. Right now I’m in France and I play with Oyonnax, a little mountain city about 1 hour from Lyon. I have the chance to play with their Espoirs in the French youth development league.”
How about the six nations: what was the best moment?
“The six nations has been the best experience, full of emotions and at the same time of motivation. I wanted to showcase my skills, play well and be with the team. Right off the bat we tried to build more of a family than a group, a brotherhood bound by friendship. These are the values that allow us to huddle up and face every game in our best shape. During this year’s six nations (2023) we had our highs and our lows, I’m taking them all with me: it is thanks to moments like those that we understood the importance of every single play during a game. You’ve got to perform from the first to the last minute, always on tracks. The best moment was probably after the game against Scotland: we were all together back at the hotel, watching Ireland’s game because it would have affected our final position in the table. We had won our game and we were celebrating together for the final third place. It’s weird to celebrate a third place, I know, but considering Italy’s rugby history that was a really important result. For the second year in a row we did something great, it made me feel accomplished and proud of the work done by the team. Defeats make us grow, we know how they taste like, and we don’t want that anymore.”
How does it feel like to be the most dominant pack of the tournament?
“I’m proud of us forwards. Despite the result of each game I can say that we dominated every other pack, hands down. Our scrum was top notch for the second year in a row, dominating the opponents, it just makes me proud of myself and my teammates. It played a big role in our game: before each scrum or lineout we felt like we were in our own flow, in our bubble, we motivated each other, looked each other in the eyes and reminded ourselves of our objectives. The moments we had to eat shit, the defeats. This is what I carry with me from this year, what makes me proud of having been part of this group.”
Actually, even us from home heard you motivating your teammates before every scrum, it was making us feel powerful too.
“This is something I love to do, I try to motivate people around me daily. Before every scrum I love to motivate props and the whole pack, get them in their zone, in that state of total focus. Having a teammate behind you who motivates you constantly, through thick and thin, is fundamental. Hence, I try to motivate them every time, to get them to give it all.”
Speaking of this: we wanted to talk to you about that video in the locker room, where you’re preparing your teammates for battle. How do you handle this leader role within the team?
“First of all, I try to be my own leader. As a consequence, I try to lead and motivate the rest of the group. I manage this thing well because in the team we have relationships based on sincerity, brotherhood and full transparency. We had to solve multiple issues within the team, and it’s important to handle them well both on and off the field. I try to help my teammates when they need a hand or even just someone to talk to. To perform at your best you must have inner peace, your mind must be free from distracting thoughts, that’s what makes you achieve great things. I handle this leader role with the help of my teammates: our egos are limited within the group, we don’t hinder each other, it’s the values we share that lead us forward. What you saw in the video was spontanous, but some things I said were already in my head before, from my previous injury. I imagined this scenario before, being in the locker room with my teammates, lift their spirits before the game. It was very frustrating to see them fight from a screen while being injured, I wanted to be there with them. Visualizing is key to connect to our present and our future, and this helped me to handle all of this.”
What’s the X-factor of this U20 team? What is astonishing, is that we’re able to be compatitive against boys that already play in the Top14 or the Premiership while our boys play in Serie A or Eccellenza.
“Our X-factor is the strength of our union, our coheshion and determination. Compared to other national teams we aren’t a group of individuals, but rather a single entity, a single team. This is what makes us different, we are our own family, our own tribe. Thanks to these values we achiveved great results, even though we could have gotten further. I’m still a bit bitter, we could have reached higher. However, we’re aware of our potential both as individuals and as team.”
What was, in your opinion, the strongest back row of the U20 Six Nations tournament?
“I don’t know, I focus a lot on myself and my teammates. I respect the opponents but I am not afraid of them, so I don’t really pay too much attention to what they do, I think about what we can do.”
How do you get ready for the game? What music do you listen to, do you have a ritual?
“I listen to music and recently I found a new way to motivate myself and get in the loop thanks to motivational videos and podcasts. I listen to trap, rap, some Linkin’ park, but also more depressing music to create that scenario of inner rage which I then use on the field. As a ritual… I always have to wear leg warmers during games, ever since I was a kid, be it winter or summer. I didn’t wear them only once in my life in a Top10 game against Piacenza and we lost.”
Is there a flanker from the senior National team you feel inspired by?
“Seb Negri stood out compared to the rest of the back row, his Six Nations was class.”
And what about the other nations?
“Ardie Savea and Josh Van Der Flier.”
What’s the thing you like the most about playing as flanker?
“What I like the most? Well… tackling (laughs). Tackling, and dominating each and every contact, recently also carrying the ball. The most satisfying feeling is tackling the flyhalves late from the blind side and get in their heads for the whole game.”
Besides your performance on the field, your name has been in the press a lot for that “working hard, eating shit” interview. What do you think is changing in Italian rugby?
“What really is changing is awareness that we can achieve something. Us U20 age grade players are the reflection of the senior team, like it or not. Our performance and our style of play are connected. With that interview I wanted to highlight the fact that us Italians have always been the tail end of the tournament, until now. We had plenty of difficult moments, like every player, but us – when compared to others – have to work twice as hard to be respected. But things are changing. We have to take all the bad we went through and use it to do good. This is just the beginning of a long path of growth of Italian rugby, it’s a gradual growth but results are starting to come. The important thing is the message we send to new generations: to play for Italy you must be motivated, have an immense sense of belonging, be proud to be Italian, have an inhuman drive to play in this jersey. You’ve got to want to gain the respect we never had. These are the fundamental things we take with us everywhere now, and that we want to leave as legacy to the future generations that will be called up in the U20 age grade.”
What are the differences you noticed between Colorno’s academy and Oyonnax’s academy, where you’re based now?
“Just today I have finally understood how rugby in France works, and how it works at the youth level. There used to be six development formation hubs in the whole France, but they don’t exist anymore. Since they were only a few, only a few players could have access to them. They have decided that every Top14 club and some ProD2 clubs must have their own academies, which pick from the clubs from their area. In Italy the player pool is much smaller compared to the french one, and that’s why they perform better than us at the Pro level. With this new system they let everyone grow, even those players that aren’t already showing champion potential, but may become that due to the hard work in the academy. In Italy we don’t have this depth: if the fly half gets injured and his substitute as well we don’t know what to do, we panic, because we don’t have that many players available outside of Benetton and Zebre; this affects us a lot. At the youth level the French are much more organised than us. In Colorno they’re trying to work differently with young prospects, they give a lot of importance to the academy especially after they won the U19 elite league. They understood the importance to invest in the formation of the academy players, with great work from the club and the staff. I’ve also had the chance to see how they work with the academy at Benetton Rugby, between gym sessions and skill sessions. It’s hard to compare environments between Italy and France. For example, academy player injuries are handled better in Benetton than in the French espoirs. The real issue is that in Italy we only have 2-3 real academies while in France you have all the Top14 clubs and some ProD2 clubs, so something like 16-17 academies. This allows them to produce many more talented players.”
Colorno is just a little town near Parma, but recently they gained a seat at the table in the Top10. What’s their secret?
“Colorno is tiny, but all resources are on rugby. I felt it like a big family, everyone helps each other, people are always available and welcoming. For what concerns the latest results, these came due to the new club organisation and the way the handled the senior team with the head coach Umberto Casellato, together with his staff. New players came, but if we look back to last year we managed to reach a good position in the league’s table without big names in the roster. The real difference has been the group.”
In a press conference, the U20 coach Brunello said you already feel at home in Oyonnax which is currently (March 2023) first in the ProD2 table. It will likely be promoted to the Top14. What are the club’s ambitions?
“Yes, now I’m aggregated to the senior team. I should have started earlier but that didn’t happen due to injuries. They’re integrating me well, I really like it here. We’re currently the leaders of the table with great advantage on the second, and thanks to our win against Grenoble we qualified to the league’s knockout stage. If we were to be promoted to the Top14, I don’t think our ambition will be to win it, it’s always about growing gradually, but the club is really ambitious and they want to gain the respect of the big teams, be known.”
You told us you were playing both rugby and football. Are you good at kicking? How many times, after a failed kick in a game, did you think “dammit, I would have scored this one”?
“I’ll be honest, I’m not bad at kicking. Of course, not training regularly for it I kind of lost the skill, but until 2-3 years ago I was the kicker the Crema’s U18 and I think I still got it. Just the other day me and the Oyonnax scrum-half had a kicking challenge from the 22 and I scored, he didn’t. I’d like to kick more, but I don’t think I will be allowed to. Then again, when during a game someone misses an important kick I was thinking “dammit” inside but the feedback you receive from a teammate is very important, it can condition your whole game, so I would rather try not to think about it. Think about our next move. I’d never feel comfortable saying something considering I could be the next one making a decisive mistake.”
What do you dream of within your rugby career, and what do you dream outside of it?
“I dream to be competitive as we are now in the future as well, win against the big nations, win the six nations, win a world cup, win titles on a personal level. I want to win with my nation and with the clubs I will play with. Outside of the rugby field my dream is to leave a mark, a legacy, do something real not just for Italy but for the world, be a leading example. I don’t know how yet, it will come to me, but I’d like to influence new generations in a positive way. We get lost chasing after material things too often, while we forget about the important things, like running on a field with your friends, come home and be with your family, be happy and help who’s around you.”
What would you say to a young prospect playing as flanker in an Italian club, dreaming about a call-up with the National team?
“Never give up on your dreams, anything can happen. Work hard, work more than the others, give it all because hard work always pays off. It takes a big deal of sacrifices so never stop believing in yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re rejected in a selection, a “no” today can turn into a “yes” tomorrow, so you’ve got to keep grinding.”
What’s your objective for the upcoming U20 world cup?
“I’m saying this because I’m ambitious. Our world cup pool is really strong, but hard challenges are what make things tasty, so I say: let’s win this world cup. This is my personal objective and our collective’s objective. Anything can happen, even for us Italians. We can get our hands on what we want.”