After ending his storied playing career with a Top League championship, Panasonic Wild Knights winger Kenki Fukuoka was awarded Most Valuable Player accolades during the league’s awards ceremony on Monday night.
The 28-year-old was given the league’s highest honor just one day after Panasonic captured their first title in four years with a 31-26 win over the Suntory Sungoliath in the playoff final.
“I’m extremely honored to receive such a great award in my final year as a player as well as the final year for the Top League,” said Fukuoka, who racked up seven tries during the season.
The Koga, Fukuoka Prefecture, native had declared that he would hang his cleats up after the 2021 Top League campaign to focus on studying to become a doctor. Fukuoka deferred enrollment at the medical school of Tokyo’s Juntendo University in February.
Fukuoka started for Japan’s Brave Blossoms during the 2015 and 2019 Rugby World Cups while also competing in the rugby sevens at the 2016 Rio Olympics. At the 2019 tournament in Japan he scored four tries and helped his squad advance to their first-ever quarterfinals.
“I didn’t dwell on how many more games I would play and just focused on one game at a time, doing the best I could to deliver the best performances possible to the fans and to not leave with any regrets,” Fukuoka said when asked if his retirement had weighed on his mind during the season.
“I will leave rugby and live a different life from this time on. But Japanese rugby continues and there will be a lot of players who are greater than me going forward.”
The 2021 season was originally scheduled to kick off in mid-January but was pushed back to Feb. 20 due to Japan’s second pandemic-caused state of emergency. Panasonic went undefeated with six wins and a draw during the regular season.
All Blacks star Beauden Barrett, a two-time World Rugby Player of the Year who joined Suntory this season, was the scoring leader with 128 points. Suntory wing Tevita Li and Malo Tuitama of the Yamaha Jubilo shared the try lead with 10 each.
“Obviously, we didn’t get the result we wanted yesterday. But look, I’ve really enjoyed my season here. I’ve really enjoyed the way the game is played here in Japan. It’s a fast, free-flowing game of rugby. And I think it suits my game of play,” said Barrett, who ended his stint with Suntory and will move to Super Rugby’s Blues. “So absolutely love my teammates at Suntory, and hopefully, I’ll come back soon.”
Yamaha’s Ayumu Goromaru, who also retired at the end of this season, was presented a special award in recognition of his status as the Top League’s all-time leading scorer with 1,282 points.
“I’m proud to be able to leave in the final year for the Top League, which continued for 20 years,” the former Japan star said.
The Top League is set to be replaced by a new three-tier competition that is scheduled to start in January 2022.
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