Javan Sebastian admitted to being “a bit overwhelmed” about the prospect of making his first start for Scotland at a World Cup after bouncing back from a “dark” spell working as a butcher when he feared his professional rugby career was over.
After failing to earn a contract in 2016, the Wales-born prop had to drop into the semi-pro ranks and got a job as a butcher in Carmarthen to make ends meet.
At that point, resigned to the likelihood that it was not to be for him at the top end of the game, Sebastian could never have envisaged he go on to represent Scotland – the nation of his father’s birth – at a World Cup in France.
“I was a bit overwhelmed when Gregor told me I was going to be starting tight-head,” said Sebastian, reflecting on the fact that – after six appearances for Scotland as a substitute – he will make his first start in Saturday’s World Cup Pool B match against Romania in Lille.
“I was quite surprised to even be selected in the World Cup squad. It’s a massive achievement to be selected in any squad, so to get a starting place is pretty surreal.”
After struggling to break through at Scarlets and then having an unfulfilling loan stint at Glasgow, Sebastian dropped out of the professional game aged 22 to become a butcher while playing part-time for Carmarthen Quins.
“That was a dark time,” he recalled, speaking from the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille on the eve of his World Cup bow. “It was after I left Glasgow, having been there for a year. I went back home (to Wales) to have my first-born.
“I took a year out of rugby and didn’t really end up having a job so I applied to be a butcher and play semi-pro.
“I worked in the butcher’s for about two months. I couldn’t hack it any longer than that. It was dark, not a nice place.
“I thought my professional rugby career was pretty much over, so I took a year out to reflect and get back to normal life.
“It made me open my eyes to what I could potentially do. Being a butcher or any other normal job is quite tough. I’m not saying that being a rugby player isn’t tough, but the real world is scary.
“I discovered normal life wasn’t for me, so I thought I would try to play rugby again.”
Sebastian was cajoled in that regard by his coaches at Carmarthen who felt he was too good to be playing at such a lowly level and helped him earn a second chance with Scarlets in 2017. He became a prominent figure at the Parc y Scarlets until joining Edinburgh this summer on a two-year deal.
“Playing semi-pro in Wales was pretty dark,” he said. “You go to places like Neath, Cross Keys away, when it’s raining and it’s seven o’clock at night and the pitches are deep in mud. It’s not a nice place to play.
“The coaches at the time were Craig Evans and Richard Kelly. They really pushed me on to try and go for more than what I was doing at that time. Richard was also a coach at Scarlets, so he really pushed me to get back in.”
Sebastian – effectively Scotland’s third-choice tighthead – feels his move to Edinburgh can help him progress further.
“It’s just another step on the journey where I want to project on to the next level,” he said.
“Edinburgh have a strong pack, so trying to play some expansive rugby within that pack will benefit me.”
Scotland srum coach Pieter de Villiers was full of praise for the way Sebastian has forced his way into contention for his first international start in a match Scotland must win with a bonus point to keep alive their hopes of reaching the quarter-final.
“It is a well-deserved start,” he said. “He’s had a great preparation period and is very well respected within the group.
“In terms of the set-piece, I think he’s one of the best scrummaging tightheads out there. You can ask any front-row player, they’ll always back Javan to pack down in a scrum.
“Playing at Edinburgh next season, it’ll be good for him to develop alongside his international team-mates. It’ll be good to have him closer to home and to see him grow.”