Shota Horie of the Panasonic Wild Knights was on Monday selected as the best player of the 2015-16 Top League season in Japanese rugby’s banner year.
The 30-year-old hooker, who helped Panasonic win its third straight championship with a 27-26 victory over the Toshiba Brave Lupus in the LIXIL Cup final on Sunday, won the Most Valuable Player Award for the second time and the first time in five years.
Horie said that he was caught completely off-guard when he found out that he had won the award.
“It has come totally out of the blue,” said Horie, who was also chosen for the Best XV, at the league’s yearend award ceremony in Tokyo. “I don’t think that I performed that well this year, but my Panasonic teammates worked hard on their own and it made (my job as captain) a lot easier.”
Horie was one of the core players on the Eddie Jones-led national team at last fall’s Rugby World Cup. But he admitted that he had had some tough times earlier in the season adjusting himself to the Wild Knights team because he was so focused on the national team.
“Without the support of others, I wouldn’t have won the MVP and been on the Best XV team,” he said.
Horie added that the MVP award could have easily gone to fellow teammates such as stand-off Hayden Parker and winger Kentaro Kodama. But at the same time, he was relieved that a Japanese player had won it after foreign players claimed the award for the past four seasons.
Berrick Barnes, Horie’s teammate at Panasonic, won it for the past two seasons. Barnes was selected as the best kicker, making 90.91 percent of his kick attempts.
“It’s Japan’s Top League, so it was great that a Japanese player could do it,” Horie said.
Parker earned the LIXIL Cup postseason MVP award.
Panasonic head coach Robbie Deans said that Horie “absolutely” deserved the honor.
“(Horie)’s superb and he’s a very good leader,” said Deans, who won five Super Rugby titles as head coach of the Crusaders. “He’s got a remarkable skill set. He could play many positions. And as a leader, he’s done a great job facilitating the group. He’s got the respect of the group.”
Meanwhile, Yamaha Jubilo star Ayumu Goromaru won the scoring title for the third time in his career. The fullback scored 83 points, 23 from goal kicks, over the course of the season.
Goromaru, whose Yamaha team finished third this season, was disappointed not have played in the championship game, which was witnessed by a full-house crowd of 24,557 at Prince Chichibu Memorial Ground. But Goromaru was happy that Japanese rugby could produce such a game.
“A lot of fans came to the stadium for the final, so it’s a bright sign for Japanese rugby,” said Goromaru, who also made the Best XV team. “Hopefully, we will keep building the foundation next year and the year after toward the World Cup (in Japan in 2019).”
Goromaru has no time to rest. He will join Australia’s Queensland Reds in Super Rugby.
Brave Blossoms captain Michael Leitch cracked the Best XV team, too. The soft-spoken flanker said that, like other players on the national team, he had an extraordinary experience in 2015.
“It was an unusual year in my entire rugby career,” Leitch said in Japanese. “Japanese rugby made a 180-degree turn, and the level of respect for the Japan national team changed. It was such a big year.”
Toshiba lock Naohiro Kotaki was named best rookie.
On the Best XV team, other Brave Blossoms stars including Keita Inagaki (Panasonic), Fumiaki Tanaka (Panasonic) and Amanaki Lelei Mafi (NTT Communications Shining Arcs) were selected.