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Javan Sebastian: From windowless butchery to a World Cup in 3 years

By Bryn Palmer
Javan Sebastien (Getty Images)

When Javan Sebastian is relating his winding journey to the Rugby World Cup, there is more than a hint of wide-eyed surprise in the west Walian timbre of the Scotland prop’s voice.

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For a player who readily concedes he only started taking rugby seriously a few years ago in his mid-20s, you get the impression he can’t quite believe the trajectory his career has taken, especially as he recalls his “year out” from the game.

After failing to secure a professional deal with either Scarlets – where he was in the region’s academy – or Glasgow, where he spent most of his time playing club rugby at Ayr, Sebastian returned home to Carmarthen and worked at a butchery.

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“That was dark,” he said. “I would wake up at 5am and be straight in there. There was no windows, no clocks, no nothing. It was an old-school butchery. You didn’t see the light of day, especially in the winter. You didn’t leave until 6pm so it was [starting in the] dark to [leaving in the] dark.

“I was on the sorting line. Meat is coming through and you are packaging it and sorting it according to where it’s going to go – whether that’s the freezer or it’s being sent out for delivery.”

Has he compared notes with fellow Scotland prop and World Cup squad member Jamie Bhatti, who started his working life in an abattoir in his late teens, moving from meat-packing initially into the grizzlier business of slaughtering sheep and cows?

Javan Sebastien
Javan Sebastian of Scarlets gestures during the EPCR Challenge Cup Round Of Sixteen match between Scarlets and CA Brive at Parc y Scarlets on March 31, 2023 in Llanelli, Wales. (Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)
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“I just told Jamie how bad it was,” Sebastian grins. “I thought, ‘No, this isn’t for me’. That is when I decided to give rugby another shot.”

Butchery’s loss has proved to be Scotland’s gain. Sebastian has quietly emerged in the last two years to provide another option in a position where Gregor Townsend is not blessed with great depth.

While Zander Fagerson is the undisputed first choice at tighthead, starting 32 of Scotland’s 38 Tests since the last World Cup, the fact the venerable WP Nel remains the principal back-up in his 38th year underlines the country’s desperate need for more scrum anchors.

After Simon Berghan – the third tighthead at Japan 2019 – retired this summer aged 32 to take up a job in the finance sector, Sebastian and young Glasgow prospect Murphy Walker were effectively battling for the third spot this time.

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“Not a lot of people would be thinking I would make the 33,” said Sebastian. “But I pushed on hard in training and showed what I am about. I think Gregor noticed something within me. As an outsider coming in, making the final squad is a huge confidence boost for me.”

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While Walker, 23, started the opening warm-up Test against Italy, Sebastian clinched his selection with a strong showing as a replacement, particularly his improved scrummaging prowess.

He was rewarded with another outing off the bench against France in Saint-Etienne, demonstrating further gains from two months of schooling Scotland’s scrum coach Pieter de Villiers, the South Africa-born former France prop.

“I always liked to think I did quite well with my handling skills and stuff like that, but Pieter has definitely pushed me forward scrummaging-wise these past couple of months – just having that one-to-one time with him,” Sebastian said.

“Working with Pieter, they are tough sessions. You are holding boys on your back for minutes on end. You think to yourself, ‘Is it really worth it?’ But when you get the chance to perform and you perform so well, it makes you think all the hard work is worth it. It shows on the pitch. I think that is my main strength now – being able to scrum well.”

Nel, the elder statesman of the front row, has also been a mentor. “I am quite close with WP. He is a renowned scrummager and any small details I can pick up off him in training to add to my game is massive. He always gives me feedback to be fair. He is a great guy.”

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Sebastian made his Scarlets debut – in an LV Cup game – as far back as the 2014-15 season while in the region’s academy, but it proved a one-off.  Townsend had got wind of his Scottish links – Sebastian’s father Eddie is from Edinburgh, still lives in the city and is a regular supporter at his son’s new club – and brought him to Glasgow on a dual partnership contract for the 2015-16 campaign, where he was farmed out to Premiership team Ayr.

“I didn’t actually play any pro rugby – I spent most of the season with Ayr, which was enjoyable,” he recalled. “I loved it. But I always knew there was more in me.

“My ex-partner and I had a child together, so we decided to pack up and go back to Wales, where it was a bit easier, closer to family. After that I took a year out of rugby before I thought I would give it one more shot, and here I am now.”

While his weekdays were spent in drudgery and darkness at the butchery, on weekends he turned out for semi-pro outfit Carmarthen Quins in the Welsh Premiership. “I enjoyed it but I didn’t take it too seriously. I played for them for a year or two. Then I decided to take it a bit more seriously and got picked up by Scarlets again.”

Even by early 2021, when he was featuring in every Pro14 game for the Welsh region and rewarded with a new contract, he barely gave news of Townsend’s interest in his progress a second thought.

“It was so out of the blue,” he said. “Dwayne Peel pulled me aside and said, ‘Gregor Townsend has been asking about you, he has been impressed with how you have been performing’. I was like, ‘Oh right’, but I didn’t even think about it really.”

He was picked for a summer tour – while the big dogs were away with the Lions in South Africa – that was supposed to include Tests against Romania and Georgia, before a Covid outbreak put paid to it. “But then a couple of weeks before I got capped, I was told ‘Gregor wants you to go and train with them, to see how you get on’. I didn’t think it was going to happen. It was so random.”

That was in November 2021. His partner Kayleigh, who also had a child from a previous relationship, was about to give birth to their first baby together back in west Wales. Sebastian was only in camp for a day when the contractions started and he dashed back home, only for the birth to be delayed.

By the time Scotland’s final autumn Test against Japan came round, with the prospect of a first cap dangling in front of him, he had already committed to staying in camp for the week. He ended up following the birth on Facetime before making his debut off the bench three days later.

Two more caps followed in Argentina last summer, and he is now up to five. Meanwhile Kayleigh and his young family, with four children between them aged seven, five, three and two, are settling into life in Edinburgh, where he will continue his club career on his return from France.

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“We have been up here about three months now,” he said. “Just before camp started, we decided to head up straightaway and get settled in with the kids. As long as they are happy, I am happy. They’re starting a new school this week, so that will be interesting.”

So Kayleigh will have her hands full while Sebastian swans off to Scotland’s World Cup base in Nice next week?  “She loves it!” he laughs. “She is great, to be fair. I couldn’t do what she does. I am just glad I have the support from her to be able to do what I do without having to worry about anything else.”

At 28, Sebastian may be a late developer, but having reached the Test arena, he is not content to stop there. “It’s a massive step in my career,” he added. “I only really started playing pro rugby properly two or three years ago, so to be in this environment, surrounded by great players, is a massive confidence boost for me. But I want to achieve a lot more than I have already.

“When Gregor called me, he said, ‘Don’t be just happy with being in the squad’ and I said to him: ‘I want a starting shirt’. That’s my main goal.  I want to be pushing boys as hard as I can. I’ve just got to keep training hard and hopefully put my hand up for selection.”

With so much raw muscle and red meat heading Scotland’s way in the next few weeks – Georgia in their final warm-up Test on Saturday, followed by the Springboks and Tonga in their first two World Cup matches – the former butcher might be a handy man to have around.

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Flankly 13 hours ago
Resilient Irish will test Springboks despite provincial setbacks

The Bok kryptonite is complacency. How did they lose to Japan in 2015, or to Italy in 2016? There are plenty of less dramatic examples. They often boil down to the Boks dialing back their focus and intensity, presuming they can win with less than 100% commitment. This can be true of most teams, but there is a reason that the Boks are prone to it. It boils down to the Bok game plan being predicated on intensity. The game plan works because of the relentless and suffocating pressure that they apply. They don’t allow the opponent to control the game, and they pounce on any mistake. It works fantastically, but it is extremely demanding on the Bok players to pull it off. And the problem is that it stops working if you execute at anything less than full throttle. Complacency kills the Boks because it can lead to them playing at 97% and getting embarrassed. So the Bulls/Leinster result is dangerous. It’s exactly what is needed to introduce that hint of over-confidence. Rassie needs to remind the team of the RWC pool game, and of the fact that Ireland have won 8 of the 12 games between the teams in the last 20 years. And of course the Leinster result also means that Ireland have a point to prove. Comments like “a club team beating a test team” will be pasted on the changing room walls. They will be out to prove that the result of the RWC game truly reflects the pecking order between the teams. The Boks can win these games, but, as always, they need to avoid the kryptonite.

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