Tag Archives: Joe Rokocoko

Tri Nations Guest Post: I Don't Want to Spoil The Party…

Poor old John Smit. After 77 minutes of brutal, bludgeoning Tri-Nations rugby, in his hundredth test match, his under-the-cosh side were sitting five points clear of their 2010 tormentors, the All Blacks, with the score at 22-17. Finally something was going to go right for him; his loose forwards had performed like recently-deployed exocet missiles, Morne Steyn was a dead-eye Dick with his goalkicking, and new halfback Francois Hougaard had kicked intelligently and made lots of darting runs up round the fringes, a la Fourie du Preez. They had driven the AB’s back in the tackle more often than not, their scrum and line-out had stood up, and it looked for all the world like he was going to receive the ultimate party gift in front of a massive Soweto crowd of 90-odd thousand. His 2010 hoodoo was about to be broken.

And then, after 81 minutes, he was kneeling, his face in his hands, with his team on the wrong side of a 29-22 scoreline. He had the same hollow, dead eyed look that Dan Carter and Anton Oliver sported from the stands in ‘that’ 2007 RWC quarter-final. Good God fearing man that he is, he really must have wondered what the hell happened. Continue reading

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Guest Post: The All Blacks Have Decided To Be Amazing Again

Tell your story walking bokker

Saturday evening saw one of the great All Black performances of recent years, with the team claiming an impressive, important 32-12, bonus point victory over the much fancied Springboks at Eden Park. As far as victories go, this one is right up there with Paris in ’04 and the second Lions test in ’05 in terms of emphatic, defining wins.

From the outset, there was an intensity to the team’s commitment to getting basics right, and to righting the three losses they suffered at the hands the World Cup holders last year. Nowhere was this more evident than in the performances of three of the more contentious selections – fullback Mils Muliaina, second five Ma’a Nonu, and lock Tom Donnelly. All three gave superb accounts of themselves, despite having had precious little game time of late –Donnelly being excellent around the park, as well as reliable in executing his core tasks, and, perhaps most importantly, disrupting the Boks’ lineout ball; Muliaina really stuck it to the critics who suggested that at 30 years of age, he was past it and ripe for replacement by the up and coming Israel Dagg with a staggering performance in defence and linebreaking counter-attack, whilst Nonu was right back to his belligerent best in midfield, in combination with the magnificent Conrad Smith. Continue reading

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Guest Post: Stayin' Alive

dead springbok

Thanks to an astonishing form turnaround from the Wallabies, and the familiar traveling woes of the Boks, the All Blacks find themselves in a position where, despite their own struggles this year, they are still in contention to win the 2009 Tri-Nations.

Birthday boy Robbie Deans wielded the selectorial axe ruthlessly (as perhaps Henry should have done), culling halfback Luke Burgess in favour of promising rookie Will Genia, moving makeshift captain George Smith to number 8 to replace the underperforming Richard Brown, and restoring Mark Chisholm, Drew Mitchell and Berrick Barnes to starting roles. Almost without exception, these changes reaped rewards as these players rose to the challenge of defending a proud 38 year undefeated record in Brisbane against the Boks. Genia in particular was superb – snappy passing, hustling feistily around the rucks, and meticulous tactical kicking that suggest Dingo has finally unearthed a worthy successor to George Gregan. Blindside flanker Rocky Elsom, too was nothing short of inspirational.

The Boks, however, looked every bit as shonky and one dimensional as they had looked polished and multi-faceted when they won handsomely (and with a bonus point) in Perth the previous week. Where in Perth previously underperforming marquee players like Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana looked like they had finally broken the shackles of the very limited kick-and-chase game they had employed to great effect at home, here they once again looked one dimensional and utterly unable to put points on the board. The penalties that they have been able to draw with their speed and aggression attacking the ball at the breakdown were simply not forthcoming from English referee Wayne Barnes, who gave a very composed and accurate account of himself (quite unlike the barely contained shambles of Cardiff in ’07 in THAT quarterfinal).

It is this inability to really put a team that is down to the sword that belies claims that this is a truly great Boks side. Just as they failed to put away the Lions in the third test this year, they failed to take a golden opportunity to complete a double header on the Wallabies in Australia; after playing magnificent, flowing, expansive, winning rugby in Perth, they reverted to type in Brisbane and looked dull, flat and uninspired.

With the All Blacks currently sitting on 8 points in the competition, and the Boks on 17, the AB’s will need to come away with two victories and at least one bonus point win in the next two weeks to perform the greatest resurrection since, um, last year and win the Tri-Nations. They will also need to deny the Boks a bonus point for losing by less than 7 – a pretty tall ask, but not unachievable, given that the Boks appear to be conforming to type and underperforming on tour.

Which really begs the question as to which Boks team will show up in Hamilton this weekend – the sleek, streamlined machine that ruthlessly dispatched the Wallabies in Perth, or the feckless, dreary unit who only avoided a 25 point thrashing in Brisbane by virtue of two last gasp, try saving tackles. And then, how best to choose a team and prepare for a team who seems to blow almost as hot and cold as the French.

Surely Stephen Donald deserves the chance to be paired with Dan Carter in the ten/ twelve roles that was afforded to Luke McAlister in Sydney – this gives the left/ right foot kicking option that the Wallabies enjoy with Giteau and Barnes in their backline, and presents the opportunity to test the Boks three quarters with some of the up and unders that the Africans have employed so effectively. Carter and Donald are also fine defenders, which will be crucial to keep the sizable Boks midfield of de Villiers and Fourie in check.

The issue then becomes who takes over Conrad Smith’s vacant 13 jersey, the obvious solution being to move Ma’a Nonu (with his improved distribution and defensive game) out one place. Bringing Mils Muliaina up from fullback has also been mooted, with Cory Jane providing fine cover, but I would suspect Jane is better deployed in place of Joe Rokocoko on the right wing.

The forward rather pick themselves, particularly with Mealamu injured and Tialata out of form and out of favour. The tight five will need to get through a power of work to repel a Springbok pack who will feel they have something to prove after looking decidedly below par in Brisbane – captain John Smit in particular had a torrid time in the scrums against Wallabies loosehead Benn Robinson, and their champion second rowers Victor Matfield and ‘Justice For Bakkies’ Botha were at least matched by the young Wallabies pairing of James Horwill and Mark Chisholm.

The loose forwards will need to play an effective linking game, functioning dually as extra bodies in the tight, and like auxiliary backs in the loose – it looks like Kieran Read will be fit to be selected at number eight over veteran Rodney So’oialo, so the only issue will be whether Adam Thompson’s stellar Air NZ Cup form makes him a contender on the blindside over Jerome Kaino (for my money Thompson is still a bit loose in the role).

Can they do it? Sure they can. Will they? Well, if we knew that there would be no point in playing.
The All Blacks have maintained such a standard of excellence since 2003, that the few games they have lost have been burned into the memory (Rustenberg, Sydney, Cardiff…) Lots of surprises in the Tri-Nations already this year, and it has already held more interest and intrigue than in recent years – is there room for one more dramatic twist in the tale?

–Jeremy Taylor

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Guest Post: The Cavalry Arrives (Too Late?)

Big time

It was a win born of necessity, rather than of the All Blacks’ tactical and physical supremacy, but in the context of this year’s Tri-Nations, it will just about do, and the obvious glee with which Graham Henry greeted the victory in Sydney after a bloody battle was plain for all to see.

Despite protestations from Wayne Smith (and the man himself) that Daniel Carter was not the cavalry coming over the hill to save the All Blacks from the worst start to a season in living memory, that in fact was almost exactly what he was – the 14 points he carved off with his boot, coupled with his deft and astute tactical kicking was by and large the difference between the two teams, particularly with his opposite Matt Giteau having a curiously quiet night. It also highlighted just what the AB’s have been lacking in terms of direction and control in their backline. Yep, sorry folks – he really is that good.

The contentious selection of Luke McAlister at second five amounted to very little in the end, particularly after he seemed dead set on showing just how badly knocked about you can get with poor tackling technique, and he was replaced by the man he usurped, Ma’a Nonu. Sitiveni Sivivatu again looked dangerous with ball in hand, while his wing partner and cousin Joe Rokocoko yet again offered precious little that Cory Jane, Hosea Gear or a number others would not have.

The rules again conspired to reduce the spectacle of the match to a one-try affair, and (usually excellent) referee Jonathan Kaplan gave a peculiarly home-team biased display that saw him overruling All Black tries to Jimmy Cowan (obstruction, a 50/50 call at best), and Dan Carter (a very questionable forward pass), as well as being every bit as whistle happy at the breakdown as his Northern Hemisphere contemporaries.

Most curious were some of Robbie Deans’ tactical decisions. Firstly, George Smith is unconvincing as a captain in Stirling Mortlock’s absence – it really seems to affect his ability to do his job at the breakdown, as though he is reluctant to draw the referee’s attention to himself – he also had a quiet match. Perhaps Nathan Sharpe, who has deputized for George Gregan in the past, may have been a better choice.

Secondly, playing Adam Ashley-Cooper at centre to accommodate teen sensation James O’Connor at fullback left the relatively inexperienced Wallaby three-quarters without much by way of direction – he would perhaps have been better left at fullback with league convert Ryan Cross in the midfield. And finally, pulling tighthead prop Al Baxter after just half an hour reeked of desperation – if you were going to pull him for doing exactly what he has done expertly for most of his career (folding in and collapsing when the Wallaby scrum is under pressure), why bother picking him in the first place? This in particular must have had the All Black forwards licking their chops, and the sight of Australian hooker Stephen Moore mopping up gallons of blood from the nose that was spread across his face was hugely symbolic.

The first forty minutes of this match did very little to allay the fears that the clumsy handling and inaccuracy that plagued the All Blacks South African visit were still a problem – they spent most of the game playing catch up rugby, and conceded far too many kickable penalties. That the win was secured, albeit right on the cusp of 80 minutes, and by a solitary point, is a testimony to the steely resolve of a hugely improved second half effort from the tight five, and of returning superstar Carter, particularly after his horribly flubbed drop goal attempt.

Rather than falling apart when he does things wrong (as Donald has, as Carlos Spencer did), Carter has the ability to pick himself up, dust himself down and play the cards he is dealt; in this instance a superbly judged kick into the corner that left the Wallabies scrambling in defense that drew the match winning penalty, which he slotted with clinical precision. His return to the side has had the same effect as McCaw’s did to the 2008 All Blacks, and with the Springboks on the road now, NZ supporters will be willing Deans’ Wallabies to lift themselves from these defeats and do the business against the Africans in either Perth or Brisbane. Or preferably both.

The All Blacks do have some problems of their own though – injuries to both starting midfielders Luke McAlister (broken cheekbone) and Conrad Smith (recurring hamstring injury) means we are in need of a fresh midfield combination for the all important match against the Springboks in Hamilton. It will be interesting to see whether the selectors persist with a kicking option at 12, which could see the much maligned Donald given a chance to prove himself in tandem with Carter, and Nonu moved to centre; or if the fragile confidence of Isaia Toeava is to be given another shot.

One thing is for certain, however – that Carter was more than ready to return to the international stage, and would be the first name you would write on the team sheet so long as he is fit.

– Jeremy Taylor

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Guest Post: Dance of the Desperates

abs

This week’s Bledisloe showdown in Sydney is shaping up as a huge matchup, in which a number of reputations may be salvaged or irreparably damaged – not least of which those of head coaches Graham Henry and Robbie Deans.

Both are coming off a pair of losses, and while their jobs are both (theoretically) safe through to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, neither’s paymasters (or public) are likely to be overly thrilled with the way the Tri-Nations has been going for them thus far. Whilst both may protest that they are now starting to build towards 2011, both will be conscious that losses don’t put bums on seats at a time when rugby is struggling to hold people’s attention, and competing for a tightly stretched entertainment dollar.

For the All Blacks, the first step on the road to recovery is the thoroughly warranted return of star playmaker Daniel Carter. Quite aside from the obvious appeal of his ‘aw, shucks’ demeanour and underwear modeling credentials, Carter is a superlative footballer who in the past has been able to step straight back into the highest level of international competition after recovering from some serious injuries.

He has looked in fine fettle in a couple of outings for Canterbury, and despite accusations of panic in the All Black camp in rushing him back, this was a decision that had to be made. Carter should be able to exercise a level of control over the backline that Stephen Donald has been unable to muster, although Luke McAlister’s selection outside him at second five is perhaps the most perplexing of Henry’s changes to the starting XV that was so comprehensively beaten in Durban.

Whilst it may be true that McAlister adds a hefty right boot to complement Carter’s left, I am with former All Blacks prop Richard Loe when he states that he has seen nothing from McAlister since his return from England that would have warranted All Black selection, and that kicking seems to be the only aspect of his game that has improved during his time at Sale. To be fair, his path back into the black jersey was to have been via some game time for the Juniors, but with the season ending injury to Richard Kahui, and Carter’s absence leaving the AB’s short of goalkicking inside backs, he was rushed back with what has been called ‘indecent haste’. The jury’s out.

By far the luckiest and unluckiest of those selected (and not) are wing Joe Rokocoko, and stalwart number 8 Rodney So’oialo. Both had good Air NZ Cup outings for their provinces in the weekend, Rokocoko scoring a brace in helping Auckland defeat Northland, and So’oialo coming off the bench to spark a Wellington second half revival that nearly got them over a spirited Bay Of Plenty after a perfectly awful first 40. Rokocoko’s form has been consistently terrible this year; So’oialo on the other hand has been merely adequate – Rokocoko gets picked, So’oialo gets benched in favour of young Cantab Kieran Reid. One also feels for Cory Jane, denied a chance to sharpen his chops with an outing for Wellington by a staunch Jamie Joseph’s refusal to kow-tow to the national selectors.

My ‘Southern Man’ friend will be thrilled with the excising of most of the Wellington contingent – Weepu (injured, but gone), Tialata (too fat, gone), Nonu (can’t kick – benched), So’oialo (umm… benched), Jane (umm…gone from the bench entirely) – in fact, only centre Conrad Smith has survived the cull. When the All Blacks lose they often resemble none so much as the Hurricanes losing yet another game against the Crusaders, and in ditching most of his Wellingtonians, Henry is perhaps seeking to eliminate this comparison – maybe this spells an end to the harem scarem histrionics that failed so dismally in Durban.

In its place, look for an improved set piece; a lot of territorial kicking and a significant improvement in accuracy at the breakdown. Helping this will be the presence of the world’s finest referee, South African Jonathan Kaplan, who shouldn’t have nearly as much problem finding the advantage line as his Northern Hemisphere colleagues, and with whom Richie McCaw has an excellent rapport. The fate of the Tri-Nations may now be out of our hands – to keep it we would need to win all our remaining matches, and for the Wallabies to beat the Boks in Perth, but like I said at the start of the tournament, I think that retaining the Bledisloe means more to most Kiwis anyhow.

– Jeremy Taylor

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Guest post: None Step Up – Two Steps Back

All Blacks lame dog

From bad to worse, the All Blacks contrived to concede two out of two to South Africa at home, with the chief culprits being a lack of discipline, poor execution of basic skills, and poor option taking under pressure from what is admittedly a very, very good Springbok side.

When rangy, athletic young Cantab lock Isaac Ross finished off a superb sequence of All Black attack early in the first half, there was a faint glimmer of hope that the poor starts that have dogged the 2009 AB’s were history. What followed, however, was 60 minutes of bungled kick receptions, shoddy passing, and inexplicable individual brain explosions.

With Bulls marksman Morne Steyn punishing any and all All Black transgressions within 60 metres of their goal line, and Welsh ref Nigel Owens whistling up a storm, this was the wrong match in which to serially infringe, even if Ross was dreadfully unlucky to be yellow carded for offside play at the end of the first half. McCaw’s usually impeccable timing and execution in pilfering possession at the breakdown showed ring rust, particularly when compared with his young Bok opponent, the increasingly impressive Heinrich Broussouw, and he too was caught out on several occasions.

If there is a concern that the forwards are being outmuscled, not to mention outsmarted, the lack of fluidity in the backline has reached epidemic proportions. The return of halfback Jimmy Cowan made no difference whatsoever, while Stephen Donald once again looked jittery and inept. Joe Rokocoko’s singular brain explosion in failing to touch down behind his own goal-line put his side under immense pressure, which was ultimately converted to points by Steyn’s tediously reliable boot.

Given that he now seems incapable of even making, let alone breaking the gain line, and has difficulty with even basic skills like catching and passing, the Rocket Man (think ‘Challenger’ – ten successful missions before crashing and burning and killing everyone on board…) must make way for the more reliable Cory Jane. It seems cruelly ironic (like rain on your wedding day, like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife etc) that Chiefs speedster Lelia Masaga was jettisoned in favour of giving Joe the chance to get back up to speed at test level, when surely the kindest thing to do for a former thoroughbred like Joe is to let him get his confidence back in the provincial competition.

Even a reliable workhorse like Brad Thorn is showing signs of the immense workload he has shouldered this year. He looks worn out. Tony Woodcock was lucky not to be penalized for continually dropping his bind at scrum time, while young tighthead Owen Franks was one of few bright spots in what was an overwhelmingly poor All Black performance, and looks to offer a lot more across the park than Neemia Tialata. It was also good to see Mils Muliaina looking hungrier than he has in the black jersey this year.

Our overall game plan does not appear to have taken into account changes in the ELV’s, and just as we looked all sea in last year’s Tri Nations loss to the Wallabies in Sydney (the last time the AB’s got absolutely hammered), this was a glaring example of a tactically flawed game plan made worse by feeble execution. Quite aside from the lineout problems resurfacing, we seem to lack the ability to use the rolling maul (executed to great effect by both the French and the Boks in their wins over the AB’s this year), or indeed to defend against it – the style of rugby the All Blacks are playing is in danger of looking as out of date as the kids in their skinny jeans and baggy cardies will in 12 months time. When the AB’s lose they invariably resemble the Hurricanes playing harem scarem rugby against a more structured side like the Crusaders. If we maybe didn’t deserve to lose in Bloemfontein any more than we deserved to win in Auckland the previous week, the match in Durban was depressing for the fact that there could be no excuses whatsoever for the loss.

So, where to now for Henry’s band of now not-so-merry men? Firstly – some personnel changes clearly need to be made. Despite some poor decision making at crunch time, Piri Weepu must be at least tried as the starting half back, and if it is that the selectors have concerns about his fitness, maybe Brendon Leonard is to add his zip and spark at the 50 minute mark. Brad Thorn clearly needs a break, so should be monitored closely in the three weeks until the AB’s meet the Wallabies in Sydney – aside from Jerome Kaino he is the only real tough nut in the pack, and as such is absolutely crucial to our slim remaining hopes in this competition. Rodney So’oialo might be better served coming off the bench (for now) with the more dynamic Kieran Read taking his place at the back of the scrum.

Which brings us to the 700,000 Euro question – is it to soon to rush Daniel Carter back into the black jersey? I say no – HELL, no! He looked comfortable enough in Canterbury’s surprise loss to North Harbour at Albany, and his class, poise and tactical kicking could be just the ticket to reignite a backline that has been stuttering and struggling for continuity, so let’s bring him back, post-haste. If you consider that the current All Black side is really only missing two of its lynchpins – Carter and experienced second rower Ali Williams – and is playing this poorly, you start to see just how crucial Carter is. Given another three weeks, a player of Carter’s undoubted quality should be more than capable of transitioning back into test match football, especially against a Wallabies side who I reckon will be at least competitive against the Boks in Cape Town this week.

Aside from some rejigging of the squad (and at the risk of sounding like one of Murray Deaker’s talkback radio morons), the team needs to work on basics – in particular, passing and catching, and protecting possession at the breakdown. Granted, this is easier said than done when you have 15 green clad, firebreathing Bokke Orcs trying to stop you from adequately performing these core tasks, but their execution has been so poor there simply must be room for improvement. Defensively the AB’s have been fairly sound, but whilst that means you can play like chumps and still beat Italy (just), it won’t cut it against teams that can punish errors like the Boks or the Wallabies , or, indeed, later in the year against the French again, or against Warren Gatland’s fine Welsh side, or… you get my drift.

It’s time to shape up or shut down altogether. Forget the talk of ‘at least we’re not peaking between World Cups’ – at this rate we’re in serious danger of not even being in the hunt come 2011.

– Jeremy Taylor

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The Force Is Gathering

Photo0090

Grant Nisbett intoned that headline ominously as another wave of Springbok attackers crashed the beleaguered All Black defenses, with the only certainty being a penalty conceded and the eager boot of Morne Steyn. The scoreline might have been similar, but this defeat was a far more humbling one, and this particular All Black side looked like bumbling amateurs when set against the confident, brusing rugby touted by the Springboks.

Thing is, though, they aren’t amateurs. And most All Black sides of the amateur era would have run this side over as nonchalantly as John Smit’s team did this morning. Most All Black sides of the amateur era could catch the high ball, could win their own line out, could figure out that constant infringement against a side with a 80% plus goal kicker was not a strategy worth pursuing.

Not our guys. The number of times the ball bounced off Sivivatu, Rokocoko and Donald’s sholuders as they leapt clumsily for a bomb was inexcusable. Similarly, on the rare occasions we had somehow gained possession, the number of passes which went to ground, behind players, through players – even, on one awful occasion, straight past players and across the dead ball line – the whole panicked, desperate nature of the transfer of the ball from one All Black to the next looked irretrievably broken.

The thing is, this was supposed to be a game where we shucked off the hemmed in, structured game which has became the norm in international rugby. Where we made use of our creative backs, and our speed across the park. Where we let the All Blacks be the All Blacks, and screw those who’d tell us otherwise. Through the build up and early stages Nisbett and company (who would have a good line in to this team) talked of the word being that this was what was coming, and when Isaac Ross scored a neat sideline try which appeared out of nowhere, you allowed yourself to dream, for just a moment, that we were going to see something special.

Then Steyn hit a penalty, then another, and suddenly the lead we’d dazzlingly stretched on the back of Ross’ try was a meagre point, and the scale of what faced us was clear. These Springboks could score more tries than they do pretty comfortably, easily three or four a match. But they’ve no need to. Such is our grasp of the myriad ways to offend at the breakdown and tackle, of how to turn a ball over and lose line-out ball – so well-versed are we at these base arts that they know possession in the opposition half brings points, and sooner rather than later.

So the new, improved, devil-may-care All Blacks this morning resembled nothing so much as the Warriors c. 2000, madly throwing the ball around no matter where they were on the field, hoping against hope that the boundless creativity latent in the limbs of our backline would somehow explode into a masterful length of the field try. That try never came, and too often we saw insanity like Sivivatu’s (error in the original – gave ‘credit’ to the wrong inept wing) Rokocoko’s failure to ground the ball behind his own tryline, which came within a hair’s breadth of disaster, or those two insipid intercept passes that Donald threw around the half-time break.

We played attacking rugby from everywhere, even though our error rate (27 turnovers, 14 penalties conceded) virtually guaranteed a change of possession. When we did decide to kick the ball, we would send it to the Springbok backs in space, where their monumental punting would have us throwing into a line-out near our own line – an area we scraped 50% of the ball from, though it felt like less.

That the score was only 31-19 you can put down to one freakish try, which came against the run of play and seemed to only galvanise the Springboks resolve. No All Black covered themselves in glory tonight, and as much as Donald had the worst game of his inauspicious career, it was a team defeated by a ruthless, extremely efficient opposition.

Perhaps the only thing you can be positive about from this annhilation was that it occurred in 2009, rather than 2011. We’ve made a habit for as long as I can remember of sweeping all before us between World Cups, so maybe it’s good for us to be down and (nearly) out here rather than getting brash and complacent. But something huge needs to change (starting with Carter’s return, and then some) for this side to have any pretensions that it can stand alongside the world’s best.

– Duncan

PS – Here’s a couple of photos I took during the pre-match. Note that the Springbok backline is so undersized that Habana had to carry one of his teammates onto the park – further grist for the All Blacks shame mill.

Brian Habana and Francois Steyn take the field in Durban

This might have been my favourite moment of the match. I’m pretty sure Percy Montgomery, the most capped ‘Bok of all time, is wearing a home-made McDonalds arm band. I have no jokes for this. I thought I really liked the golden arches, but neither I nor John Daly have ever gotten this deep.

Percy Montgomery loves McDonalds

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