TOKYO -- The Japanese national rugby team was honored with the 2019 Mainichi sporting figure grand prix at a ceremony on Dec. 18, in recognition of the side's first-ever appearance in the final eight at the Rugby World Cup, hosted this year by Japan.
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Brave Blossoms forward Pieter 'Lappies' Labuschagne, 30, represented the team at the awards ceremony held at the Tokyo Dome Hotel in the capital's Bunkyo Ward. A smiling Labuschagne said that the side was "honored" to be chosen, and that they had come so far because they had truly become "one team."
After much difficult deliberation, the prize committee ultimately chose the rugby squad for the top honor for embodying the "one team" spirit as it brought together players from diverse cultures and backgrounds and displayed a relentless will to win on the field. This is the second time the national rugby side has won the grand prix, after the 2015 team grabbed the prize for posting three wins in the World Cup group stage.
Awarded the prize for best athlete was 21-year-old golfer Hinako Shibuno, who wowed fans by winning the Women's British Open in August -- the first LPGA major championship she had ever played in. She was unable to attend the ceremony, but accepted her award in a video message played at the event.
The rookie golfer beat Lizette Salas of the United States by just one shot, playing her way into the committee's estimation with her clutch performance and ready smile under pressure at just 20 years old (at the time of the tournament). Shibuno was the first Japanese woman to win a golf major since Hisako Higuchi came out on top at the 1977 US Women's Open.
The culture award was presented to the city of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, for its astounding tsunami disaster recovery efforts that led to it being named a 2019 Rugby World Cup host. Central Kamaishi and other parts of the city were destroyed and more than 1,000 citizens were killed by the tsunami that followed the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, but the community has fought its way back to become a "rugby town" complete with the new Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium, built on the site of a primary school that was lost to the waves.
Receiving the rookie prize were both Munetaka Murakami, an infielder for the Yakult Swallows of Nippon Professional Baseball's Central League, and Paralympic swimmer Naohide Yamaguchi.
The prize committee also gave a special award to the Tokyo Broadcasting System television drama "No Side Game," which aired before the start of the Rugby World Cup. The committee recognized the limited series for its portrayal of the sporting spirit through its story of a corporate employee trying to restart the company rugby club as he also struggles to advance at work.