Six Nations 2015

The Grandest of Finales

Did That Really Just Happen?!

Who knew an entire nation or perhaps entire nations, could be brought on a seven-hour rollercoaster ride filled with every single emotion on the spectrum – watching rugby! Baseball’s World Series has the fabled ‘Shot heard ‘round the world’ when Bobby Thompson connected for a game-winning home run for the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 3rd 1951. Well, over sixty years later Six Nations rugby now has its very own landmark moment, the ‘What the f**k are you doing, heard ‘round the world’ when Yoann Huget, clearly a man who loves a bit of drama, pushed our hearts to the very top of our mouths with a quick tap penalty on his own line with the game up for England. In Huget’s defence, we have moaned here incessantly about our longing for the France of old. Well on Saturday we got it, right up to the last second of a Twickenham encounter that will surely go down as one of the greatest games in rugby history, particularly when circumstances are taken into account.

On Friday we bemoaned the fact that the staggered kick off times left an uneven playing field for the players. How now do we argue with the greatest afternoon’s rugby that many of us will ever see in our lifetime? I’m not sure if we can. Is the format unfair? Yes. Was that the most thrilling, stomach churning, nerve inducing sporting experience a spectator could ask for? Absolutely! Perhaps the only way the format should be tweaked, as has been suggested by many people this weekend, is to ensure the order of play on the final day of the tournament is rotated each year. Therefore Wales and Italy would avoid playing the first game on the final day next season and so on. It wouldn’t be a perfect system but, in any event, we get the feeling there won’t be a major overhaul of the format. Not after that!

Wales got the thumping victory we anticipated but not quite in the manner we imagined. For the second week in a row the Welsh scrum was destroyed early on except this time the referee applied the rules differently and the dominant side was rewarded. The home side only trailed by a point at half-time and it seemed Wales’ mountain would be too far to climb. The visitors, though, came out a different beast in the second half, running in tries from every neighbourhood. Still, we noted before the weekend that all-out attack could open a door for Italy, a potentially fatal one for Wales, and so it was that Leanardo Sarto managed somehow to keep his legs inside the field of play and touch down for the game’s last try. Luciano Orquera then landed a tricky conversion to give Ireland and England hope. And as Brendan Rodgers once said, probably with a straight face, “….you can live without water for many days, but you can’t live for a second without hope.” Right on, Brendan!

So to Murrayfield, where millions of Irish hearts must have felt that twenty-three points were doable, but the head, no matter how hard it tried, just couldn’t agree. We know what happened. Up-tempo from the first second, Ireland came in waves, Tommy Bowe’s searing break a sign of things to come. Paul O’ Connell, almost enjoying folk-hero levels of popularity these days touched down for Ireland’s first try but, of course, there was drama to follow; a sloppy Scottish try, snatched place kicks from Jonny Sexton and Ian Madigan and a game-changing tackle by the incredibly alert Jamie Heaslip to prevent a seemingly certain try for Stuart Hogg. The Irish players couldn’t help but be thoroughly satisfied with their efforts, but they knew that they wouldn’t be reaching their destination without a few more bumps along the road.

All eyes then to south-west London and who in their right mind could foresee what was coming. England’s task seemed nigh on impossible. A twenty-seven point victory was needed over a French side who hadn’t even conceded that many points in a single game in this year’s tournament. Never mind, as for the first time in years Les Bleus decided to play ball the Gallic way. Once the set-pieces were over then what of the restrictive numbers on their backs. Vincent Debaty, the twenty stone veteran prop racing on to an offload from the breathless Noa Nakataici coupled with Nakataici’s own insouciance in touching down for his early try made us realise how much we missed the carefree, slightly insane thrills that the French can bring to the game.

To England’s credit it was they who put together the single most entertaining and exhilarating eighty minutes of the tournament. Ben Youngs’ brilliantly worked try within two minutes was a fabulous score but little did we know that almost two hours later we’d have seen eleven more tries, breathless end- to- end play from both sides and a firm message to the Southern Hemisphere that rugby is alive and kicking up here. Even in a World Cup year the 2015 Six Nations has left an indelible mark on our memories.

Before we completely lose the run of ourselves though, let’s remember that these final games were taking place in a bubble, a series of catch me if you can challenges laid down by three teams who had come to play. Wales caught fire almost from nowhere, Ireland were adventurously cautious for the whole game while England thrilled but made some absolutely unforgivable mistakes. Thus, it is perhaps fitting that the winner of the ultimate spoils showed the greatest composure when it counted most.

Either way, we should all remember that this past Saturday we experienced the most perfect storm imaginable. This is perhaps where we get too carried away with sport but where else will you get such honest endeavor, selfless dedication and outpouring of emotion. For seven hours on Saturday nothing else mattered. Sure, there are politics in sport, but there are none on the pitch. We saw an unscriptable drama, thriller and tragedy (for England) all rolled into one. Remember where you were when Nigel Owens blew the fulltime whistle at 6:57 p.m. on Saturday 21st March 2015. We may have been cursing Yoann Huget but maybe he knew he was putting the finishing touches on a day of rugby theatre that we will not see for quite some time.

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Six Nations 2015

Six Nations Round 5 Preview – Are You Not Entertained?

Before we go any further we’re going to take the not highly recommended path of raining on the parade before we’ve even started. Saturday afternoon’s final round of staggered fixtures is completely unfair on the teams playing earlier, most obviously Wales. As a rule of thumb, we use the simultaneously devious and incompetent Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA, to discern levels of sporting administrative competence. Put simply, if Blatter allowed the final round of World Cup group fixtures begin at different times there would be outrage. Tomorrow afternoon’s rugby will be heaven for the neutral but for the players, the ones who matter most, this set up needs to be altered. There have been rumblings about the schedule, from the Welsh camp in particular, and rightly so. The powers that be have been warned. One year of this is acceptable, but a change should be brought about next year. Nonetheless, after rugby enjoys a heretofore unseen stranglehold over the British and Irish television markets between 12:30 and 7:00 p.m. tomorrow, greed not for the first time may win out over fairness.

Back to more immediate matters. The staggering of the climax of the tournament means each game will be significantly affected by the preceding result. Wales need to be as gung-ho as possible against an Italian side who may well be the accommodating hosts their visitors require. Ireland are up next probably needing to surpass Wales and ensure they set England a tricky target. England will then know exactly what they need to do. All of this prefaced by the fact that Wales, Ireland and England all win as expected. First to Edinburgh where the eyes’ of this nation and Irish men and women the world over will be fixed.

Scotland –v- Ireland – 21st March, 2:30 p.m. – Murrayfield

Last week’s hugely disappointing and thoroughly dissected defeat in Cardiff means Ireland’s hopes of going back-to-back have been severely dented. Ireland are the meat in ‘race to the title’ sandwich. Wales will play before them, meaning Ireland will know exactly what they need to do to catch their conquerors of last week but not England.

Anyone who’s been following us during the tournament will know that we feel Scotland have underperformed and are better than their record suggests. We could claim Scotland have been unlucky but what we really mean is that they have failed to execute after putting themselves in some promising positions. A sloppy pass against France when a draw was a reality and a failure to break the Welsh line when deep in the visitors’ territory, though we didn’t know then what we know now about the incredible Welsh goal line defence. This was followed by an eighty minute abomination against a let’s be frank, awful Italian team. Their game against England last Saturday was probably an accurate reflection of what their current capabilities are. They were always in this game, helped admittedly by some sloppy English play and some last gasp defensive heroics, but that is what they would have expected. They opened England up brilliantly for Mark Bennett’s try but are clearly still a work in progress.

The Scottish side previous generations grew up watching possessed some absolute masters of back row play. John Jeffrey, David Leslie and Finlay Calder made life absolute hell for their opposite numbers and some probably still mentally scarred out halves. Such was their incredible ability to dominate in the ruck that it appeared at times they were being afforded an immunity, ordinarily reserved for foreign diplomats, to do absolutely as they pleased on the ground. They will have been nodding their heads in approval at the masterclass provided by the Welsh back row in Cardiff last weekend. The trio tackled every target, moving or otherwise and made life incredibly difficult for Conor Murray and latterly Eoin Reddan. The less illustrious trio of David Denton, Blair Cowan and the recalled Adam Ashe will need to bring their game to as yet unseen levels as they will be facing an angry, pumped up Irish unit in Peter O’ Mahony, Sean O’ Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

Meanwhile, the Irish trio needs to be far more effective in Edinburgh, on both sides of the ball. Scotland will want to get their lively, young backline into play early so quick ball is naturally a must. O’ Mahony will be primed to make the flow of the ball available to Greg Laidlaw as interrupted and messy as is humanly possible. O’ Brien and Heaslip made an incredible thirty-seven combined carries last weekend, yet never once did they make sufficient inroads to cause panic in the Welsh defence. Scotland, considerably less experienced and without any great continuity of coaching, will be that little bit looser in defence, so it would be hugely frustrating if Ireland’s half backs can’t create genuine attacking opportunities for O’ Brien, Robbie Henshaw, Tommy Bowe and the recalled Luke Fitzgerald. Further, Ireland could even add an element of surprise if a receiver running a hard line lays the ball off before reaching the gain-line. In any event, try something a bit intuitive. Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray need to step it up massively from last week and keep the Scots constantly guessing and forced onto the back foot. So much more easily said than done though.

While it’s absolutely fantastic to see Fitzgerald back in a green jersey we feel that Simon Zebo, who Fitzgerald replaces, has copped far too much criticism from last weekend. We’re far from being Zebo apologists but given the plethora of mistakes all over the field last weekend it’s bizarre that a left winger who was never worked into any good positions was the target of such ire. We find it most odd that the Cork man is left out of the matchday twenty-three altogether. Tomorrow’s game takes place in slightly different circumstances where the to-date successful system, needs to be adapted a little. After sixty minutes, Ireland are going to have to loosen the shackles and go for an all-out offensive assault. Zebo, not Jones, would surely be the man to bring on in this situation.

Rory Best, who was well off the mark last week, has been retained because firstly a performance such as last weekend’s is a rarity for him and he’s an absolute monster in the dirty wars in tight. Sean Cronin is a fine player and brilliant impact substitute but let’s be fair, his darts aren’t exactly on a par with Phil Taylor either. Iain Henderson may too feel peeved but Devin Toner’s line out skills cannot be underestimated against a very strong Scottish unit led by Jonny Gray and the man you’d want, every single time, to have your back in a barroom brawl, Jim Hamilton.

Stuart Hogg and his Michael Jackson feet can cause Ireland untold trouble but the reality is that if we go for it, opportunities will be that little bit more plentiful for Scotland. The likelihood is Ireland will need to win by ten or twelve points to either catch Wales or put England under pressure later on, yet a win in Murrayfield would be an achievement in itself, so the task at hand becomes ever more difficult.

We still maintain that Ireland must go for it late on and even if they don’t retain their Six Nations crown, Joe Schmidt will know whether his men can play expansive, borderline cavalier ball when the situation demands it.

Ireland by 8 (Ireland -8 generally) i.e Stay away!

 

Italy -v- Wales – 21st March, 12:30 p.m. – Stadio Olimpico

This one has massacre written all over it. Italy are, with all due respect, a very poor team and without totemic leader Sergio Parisse today, they are in our view, sitting ducks. The more we look at it, the more the victory against Scotland looks like an outlier. Their visitors, who no one would have put in the Championship hunt after their round one humbling by England, will be buoyed by last week’s defiant victory over Ireland when they were able to repel wave after wave of enemies at the gate.

The Italians are ferociously proud and stubborn, particularly at home but Ireland in 2007 (51) and England last year (52) were able to put up serious scores, when required. The Welsh are more than capable of matching this. Confidence is surging through the team once more and if Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau had to put in backbreaking defensive work last week, their biggest problem tomorrow will be keeping up in support, after their surging backs break the Azzurri line, time after time.

Wales’ biggest fear is conceding scores from turnovers or breakaways, a fate that befell Ireland and England before, but they have to take risks. They no doubt feel slighted by the fact that replica Six Nations trophies are on the way to Murrayfiled and Twickenham but not Rome. After a woman, hell hath no fury like a Celtic nation scorned. The public, meanwhile, are giving due notice to Wales as the handicap has moved from 22 to 25 points in less than 24 hours.

Wales should demolish their hosts tomorrow and most likely put themselves in the driving seat for the Championship. Expect George North and co. to run amok and the lively Scott Williams and debutant Gareth Davies to feast on the scraps from the bench. How sweet for Warren Gatland and his team if they can overcome what seemed insurmountable odds only a week ago.

Wales by 35+ (Wales generally -25) 

 

England –v- France – 21st March, 5:00 p.m. – Twickenham

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect states that one small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. Translate. Each kick, pass or drop of a ball in Rome and Edinburgh could have a far reaching effect on what England will need to do come tomorrow evening.

It’s frankly impossible to determine at this point what England will need to do against France. Hell, even Stuart Lancaster has delayed his team talk until he knows the outcome of the two earlier games, However we’re going to operate off the following premise, less Stephen Hawking, more Nostradamus: Wales win by thirty five points, while Ireland win by eight. This leaves Wales on +47 and Ireland on +41, meaning England, currently +37 need to win by eleven points to surpass Wales and win the championship. Further, the bookmakers generally have England as ten point favourites so that seems to be the ballpark figure for the required winning margin. Still with us? Excellent!

The always confident Twickenham crowd will no doubt expect a disinterested French side to roll over and let their heroes romp to a first title since 2011, just in time for the World Cup. We, however, do not see it that way. England for all their dominance last week, struggled to pull away and only secured victory with five minutes to go. This is not the team of old, chocked full of the reassuring composure and bloody-mindedness of Martin Johnson and Johnny Wilkinson. The current side while developing nicely are still relatively callow and have yet to be in a position, their fate in their own hands, to seal victory in Europe’s premier tournament.

As we alluded to already, France rather perversely, rarely give up big scores due to the completely uninspiring brand of rugby they play these days. Indeed, along with Ireland, they have conceded the least points (46) in the tournament this year. Coach, Phillipe Saint- Andre, for all his flaws, has crafted an aggressive, watertight line that rarely concede line breaks. Most of England’s tries have arrived from outside breaks from Luther Burrell, Jamie Joseph and Anthony Watson. Tomorrow, the situation demands that England come out well on top in an expected arm wrestle, something they could not achieve in Dublin.

France have Jules Plisson in for the injured Camile Lopez at out half while Mathieu Bastareaud sits on a large chunk of the bench, a place from where we anticipate he may well cause some late damage to the home side’s aspirations of Six Nations success.

This weekend’s games form part of a sort of gauntlet series, where Wales will go out and lay down a marker which their rivals will then set about matching and surpassing. Nonetheless, inside or outside this bubble, we believe that France, while no world beaters are being shown too much disrespect. One imagines they would enjoy nothing more than kicking over the cake and stealing all the drinks from the anticipated party at Twickenham tomorrow night. Saint-Andre noted, “We are going there with a positive pressure on us.” He’s right, they are. England, however, are facing an unknown pressure and a task, while certainly not insurmountable, far tougher than people are anticipating.

Don’t be surprised if when darkness falls tomorrow the perceived puppet masters have lost control of their own destiny.

England by 6 (England -10 generally)

 

Final Prediction: Wales to win the Six Nations Championship on point difference. 

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Six Nations 2015

Six Nations: Round 4 Preview – Moving Day

a Six Nations Round 4 Preview – Moving Day

WALES –v- IRELAND – Saturday 14th March, 2:30 p.m. – Millennium Stadium

So here we are. Moving day, to borrow from golfing parlance. The pivotal round of this year’s Six Nations, where the wheat and the chaff go their separate ways. All eyes will be on the Millennium Stadium at 2:30 this afternoon as two of the three remaining title contenders, Wales and Ireland, lock horns in what promises to be an absolute belter. The home side will look to prove that they do indeed belong in the same conversation as Ireland and England, particularly after their comprehensive defeat to the latter in the tournament’s opening round. Ireland, for their part, are seeking back- to -back titles in the northern hemisphere’s premier competition for the first time since 1949.

Immediately, our thoughts turn to the two head coaches, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt, both of whom may be casting a long term eye towards their dream job back home in New Zealand. Gatland, the Six Nations current longest serving coach, having been appointed in 2007, has enjoyed fantastic success with Wales, winning three championships and two Grand Slams. Despite this success there is a suspicion that his game plan has gone stale of late. The fifty one year old has achieved great success through an incredibly physical, direct game plan, admittedly executed by some excellent players but right now his side seem to be missing a bit of guile.

Schmidt on the other hand is at the beginning of his international coaching odyssey. His side have drawn first praise and then the inevitable criticism for being one-dimensional. As Gatland can attest, there’s nothing wrong with one-dimensional when it works and again it should be noted that the Hamilton born man has led the Welsh to two Grand Slams and a World Cup semi-final during his tenure.

Schmidt, to the untrained eye, seems to play them as he sees them, insofar as he adapts the game plan to suit his team’s upcoming opponent. In advance of tomorrow’s encounter Schmidt will have noted, along with everyone else that Wales just love to send Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and Toby Faletau at the opposition midfield as early and as often as possible. Ireland’s back row, welcoming back the tireless Jamie Heaslip, and their centre pairing are happiest when taking down direct traffic. It’s clear at this stage that trying to breach the Irish wall by bludgeoning your way up the middle is about as sensible as telling Joe Pesci to go shine your shoes.

This may sound a bit obvious but the key to scoring is having the ball deep in enemy territory. Ireland generally achieve this through a couple of carries to create space for their half backs followed by incredibly well placed box kicks or booming up and unders. Through this style of play, they re-gather the ball or force turnovers, better than any other side in the world. It’s not pretty but unless you’re a neutral, who cares. Better to win ugly like Mourinho than lose beautifully like Wenger. Admittedly, Ireland have not been forced to show their expansive side because, to the best of our knowledge, they’re yet to fall two scores behind. If this happens, and they can’t dig themselves out, then the cries for a lack of perceived creativity may have a little more substance. But until we see this it’s like asking if Australians would be better than us at Gaelic Football if they played the game – We don’t know!

As has been the case recently, Ireland’s game will be predicated on Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray’s accuracy with the boot and a disciplined chase by Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo. Bowe’s aerial skills have long been lauded but it was in this facet of the game that Zebo really came to the fore against England, save for one over-exuberant chase. George North poses an obvious threat going forward but as with most men his size he can’t exactly turn like a ballerina. Also Sexton will most likely kick the corners more often knowing that Ireland’s line out definitely has the advantage over their Welsh counterparts.

Wales’ route one approach has as we noted before been bolstered by the addition of Liam Williams on the wing and the sharp, predatory Rhys Webb at scrum half. Wales obviously need to knock on the front door a few times but once there’s no answer, they should think about sneaking in around the side, utilising Williams and Webb. Roberts, Davies, Henshaw and Payne are going to be one big midfield demolition derby so the likelihood is that the magic, or just a clean line break, is going to come from a well- timed run from the respective back threes, or a little snipe from Webb. As has been pointed to us by a colleague of ours, this Irish team don’t tend to switch off all that much so the Webb threat should be somewhat neutralised.

If you run through both sides it’s hard to find an area where the Welsh are superior. Centres and back three perhaps, but only after an argument in relation to the latter.The back rows are on a par but in our eyes Ireland hold the upper hand in all other areas. So, then you look to the respective coaches. Boston’s Ken Casey, an old favourite of this column, once said, “Though it starts with a fist it must end with the mind.” In our view Gatland can’t help but endure with the fist. Schmidt’s sides are nothing if not physical but it’s in his more cerebral, methodical approach that he takes the advantage into tomorrow. Ireland are a better side, made even better than the sum of their parts by the excellent Schmidt. Ireland should go to Murrayfield next week with their Grand Slam hopes intact.

Ireland by 4 (Ireland -1 generally)

ENGLAND –v- SCOTLAND – Saturday 14th March – Twickenham

The home side will be smarting after being both outfought and out thought by the Irish a fortnight ago. They welcome back Courtney Lawes and Mike Brown, in place of George Kruis and Alex Goode. After the number Ireland did on his pack two weeks ago, Stuart Lancaster realises that his second row depth, Kruis, isn’t quite what he thought, and the bench spot goes to Geoff Parling. Meanwhile Brown, in our opinion, is the best full back in the northern hemisphere and obviously his return bolsters the English side. Having been humbled, and even with green tinted glasses on they were, they’ll look to get their title hopes back on track in front of an expectant home crowd. From the outset this all suggests a comfortable home win with a beleaguered Scottish side coming to town. However we don’t see this one being quite as straightforward.

Scotland, for whom perhaps we have had too much of a soft spot, are really not as bad as their basement dwelling, winless position suggests. They took the game to France in Paris and were with them right until the end. Against Wales, a game we thought they’d win, they kept shooting themselves in the foot at the most inopportune moments. We can’t really make any excuses for the Italian defeat though. Senseless errors, often by their out halves, and an inability to strike when the iron’s hot in the other sides twenty two means they go to Twickenham with pressure coming at them from all angles.

Vern Cotter has made five changes to his side but the bigger question is whether he has succeeded in a short space of time in instilling some mental strength and plain old cop-on into his decision makers, namely Finn Russell and Peter Horne. We discussed the relative strengths of Cotter and Joe Schmidt recently with a friend of the column and they made the interesting point that Cotter seems too willing to invest his faith in talented but flaky playmakers, Finn Russell for Scotland and more obviously Brock James at Clermont Auvergne. While we agree that he gave James too many chances at Clermont the same can’t be said of the younger Russell or Horne, both of whom have performed fantastically well for Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow. We expect Russell, on his return from suspension, to step his game up tomorrow.

Like Lawes for England, Scotland have recalled their enforcer the battle hardened Jim Hamilton. Also added is big ball carrier Dave Denton so, on the face of it Scotland have decided they need a bit of ballast after being humiliated up front by the Italians. Still, we think England’s pack is considerably stronger, particularly on their home turf. Their backline didn’t get much of a look in the last day, thanks mainly to the suffocating game plan carried out to perfection by the Irish. Tomorrow England will enjoy more joy up front and with great ball comes great opportunities. While we certainly don’t expect the floodgates to open after sixty minutes, we just don’t see the Scots having the firepower or the leadership to pick up their first Twickenham victory since 1983.

Scotland are obviously coming south of the Wall looking for more than a performance but a good showing here is necessary before they worry about taking on the world. England, meanwhile need to get the show back on the road and, regardless of the earlier result in Cardiff, put themselves in good shape for the finale against France. Both sides are hurt but while Scotland would cherish victory, Engand quite simply need it more. And, to put it bluntly, they are the better side.

England by 12 (England -16 generally)

 

ITALY –v- FRANCE – Sunday 15th March 3:00 pm – Stadio Olimpico

Two teams on one victory apiece but who come into Sunday’s game with very different dispositions. Italy were by all known measures the write off of this year’s Six Nations Championship. Still, they arrived in Murrayfield and bullied the Scottish, culminating in a last gasp penalty try and a very welcome victory. France on the other hand were man handled on their own patch, going down to a well organised, aggressive Welsh side, meaning France are Championship also rans after three rounds.

The home side welcome back Andrea Masi while their field general Sergio Parisse wins an Italian record 112th cap. The emotion on the Azzurri’s faces after their victory two weeks ago was fantastic to see and one feels that with a win under their belt they can go home to an adoring public and have a real cut at the tournament’s most spineless side. France will be reeling from their latest defeat, which in truth was as comfortable a seven point victory as you’re likely to see. Tomorrow, coming fresh off the centre carousel, we have Maxime Mermoz and Gael Fickou. The twenty year old Fickou showed flashes of his brilliance with his matching try against England in Paris last year but it’s anyone guess whether he gets to shine. We’ve found it very difficult to read the French under the turgid stewardship of Phillippe Saint Andre. The one shining light is their defence. They’ve conceded just two tries thus far, so while about as exciting to watch as an Eastenders omnibus they won’t give away all that much.

With the World Cup looming the last thing Ireland or indeed group rivals Italy want is for Saint Andre to be replaced after the Six Nations. The prevailing view, as pointed out by Gerry Thornley in The Irish Times earlier this week, is that a French victory on Sunday and a solid showing in Twickenham next week will keep Saint Andre entrenched in the role, much to the displeasure of the French public. We give Italy every chance here but think, and selfishly hope, that the French will sneak this one.

France by 4 (France -7 generally)

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