This year's ITM Cup has introduced a host of new faces on to the New Zealand rugby landscape. APNZ's Daniel Richardson takes a look at five players who have made the competition an entertaining one.
1. Ardie Savea.
Only one year out of high school, the Wellington utility doesn't look out of place among the big boys and still doesn't turn 19 until this Sunday. After spending time with the New Zealand sevens squad earlier in the year, the younger brother of All Blacks wing Julian Savea has made an impressive start to his professional rugby career. He can be used as an openside flanker or No 8 and even spent time in the backs at club level in the capital this year. Fast and strong with silky skills he is one to watch. Expect to see him in Hurricanes colours next year.
2. Paea Fa'anunu.
The 23-year-old Canterbury prop is a serious case of prime beef. Listed at 130kg on the team's website, the front-rower, who debuted for the province last year, has surprisingly good ball skills for a bookend. Fa'anunu gets around the paddock well and considering the Crusaders have lost All Black prop Ben Franks for next season, he may be on Todd Blackadder's radar to step up to Super Rugby in the near future. The big unit even managed to score a brace in Canterbury's 84-0 romp over Southland recently.
3. Fumiaki Tanaka.
Standing only 1.66m and tipping the scales at 72kg, the Otago halfback has been a diminutive find for first-year head coach Tony Brown. With 31 test caps for Japan under his belt, the 27-year-old Tanaka has brought plenty of experience to the southern men but plays fearlessly considering his tiny frame. He was the smallest player at last year's World Cup but has a sharp pass and rarely falls off a tackle.
4. Peter Betham.
Tasman weren't expected to produce much this season, but the Wellington-born Betham, who is now domiciled in Australia, has provided plenty of spark on attack. The versatile outside back has been at home on the wing for Tasman and has helped put them in to playoff contention in the Championship with his blockbusting runs. He has also been on the books of Super Rugby sides the Brumbies, Rebels and Waratahs. While he has only made a handful of Super Rugby appearances during the past five years, the 23-year-old appears to be realising his potential now. His performance in round five against Manawatu, where he found his way on to the score sheet, was one of his stand-out individual outings.
5. Jason Emery.
Manawatu haven't had a lot to smile about this season but the progress of their impressive young centre has been one thing to take away from this year. He's not the tallest player on the field, but Emery has a slick running game with a keen eye for the gap. The 19-year-old has inked a deal with the Highlanders for next season after it was understood the Hurricanes only offered him a berth in their wider training group. Emery's defence needs work but Jamie Joseph will no doubt drill some improvement into him in Dunedin next year. Emery, who has reportedly had an agent since he was a Year 11 student at Palmerston North Boys' High School, is again eligible for the New Zealand under-20 side next year; a team he played for at this year's world championships in South Africa.
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- APNZBy Daniel Richardson @danrichardson21 Email Daniel