2021 Autumn Tests: Week 5

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 5

We’re here! 5 weeks of rugby came down to this final week of Test matches, and some absolute crackers.

November 9ᵗʰ 2002 was the last time that Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all lost Tests on the same day. Well flash forward to 20ᵗʰ November 2021, which saw 14-man Australia lose 29-28 to Wales courtesy of a last minute Rhys Priestland penalty, New Zealand fall to 2 losses on the bounce following a 40-25 loss to France and South Africa lose to a last gasp Marcus Smith penalty that gave England a 27-26 victory.

Elsewhere that day, Scotland saw Stuart Hogg break their record for Test tries with his 25ᵗʰ as they finished off their Autumn with a 29-20 win against Japan, Italy earned their first win since RWC2019 with a 17-10 victory over Uruguay and Georgia and Fiji drew 15-15 in Spain, while the weekend came to an end with Ireland following up their win over New Zealand with a record 53-7 victory over Argentina.


Scotland

While Scotland have shown some good stuff this Autumn, this match continued a trend that has me worried for their Six Nations hopes. While they have incredibly talented players and and are developing some real depth in many positions, their discipline at the breakdown is shocking.

In attack, they look to play good rugby, but end up not supporting effectively enough and getting pinged for sealing off or holding on, while in defence they continued to hurt themselves with penalties for not rolling away quickly or correctly with maddening frequency.

Sometimes you have to slow things down any way you can, but too many of these penalties they are giving away are just dumb. With England, Ireland and France all looking like they could have dangerous attacks come the Six Nations, the Scots have to avoid making it easy for their opposition by gifting them easy territory and chances for 3 points.

Japan

Japan are struggling in attack right now. Too much of their rugby is going from wing to wing without really going forwards, and defences are reading it, with Scotland frequently jamming up out wide in this game to cause issues. And the reason for this is that they are not getting those big carries over the gain line that they need.

Kazuki Himeno is a top player, but he is not an unknown anymore. Teams are accounting for him and focusing on him. He needs help. And the way to do this is to bring Tevita Tatafu into the starting back row. Tatafu “the Hitman” always seems to bring an extra something to the Japanese game when he is brought on, and will usually require more than 1 tackler to get him down, which then takes some of the attention away from Himeno and other carriers, allowing the team to start getting on the front foot and creating the space out wide for Kotaro Matsushima.

He may have been a leader and superstar for them for many years, but Michael Leitch is past his prime now and if Japan want to continue pushing forward, they need to move on from him as part of the starting XV and make Tatafu a regular in the starting XV.

Italy

Italy are putting together a decent squad even with star player Jake Polledri out injured long-term, but they are making a crucial error in attack that is making them far too easy to defend against. Much like Japan at the moment, the Azzurri are trying to go wide too quickly, without earning the right to do so by hitting it up in the middle of the pitch and around the fringes of the breakdown.

It’s strange why they aren’t doing so, as they certainly have the quality. Plenty of the pack frequently show themselves to be good carriers of the ball, while there even were occasional moments when Italy did play around the breakdown or hit it up through the middle and actually found themselves having some degree of success. But then far too often we would quickly see a return to the side-to-side rugby that was far too easy for the Uruguayan drift defence to deal with.

Players like Monty Ioane, Matteo Minozzi and debutant Pierre Bruno are already looking dangerous as a potential back 3. If space could be created for them out wide by hitting up players like Luca Morisi, Seb Negri, Danilo Fischetti and Ivan Nemer off 9, 10 and 12, while also utilising the threat of Stephen Varney around the breakdown, this Italian team will quickly jump to another level.

Uruguay

Keep an eye on Los Teros!

In this match, they showed that they have an organised defence, and a number of players who are certainly able to make a nuisance of themselves at the breakdown. In attack, they caused plenty of problems when they kept things tight, with the pack working well as a unit, while there is some real flexibility in the back line. Meanwhile in the set piece, they may be a little lightweight in the pack when it comes to the scrum, but with the 6′ 8″ Manuel Leindekar in the team, they’ll always be looking to disrupt the opposition lineout.

They pushed the Italians hard in this game and there is certainly an argument that they should have had a penalty try as Danilo Fischetti tackled Facundo Gattas before he caught the ball 5m out from the line; a decision which would have levelled the scores and given them a man advantage for the last 5 minutes… and that was without 2 of their stars: scrum half Santiago Arata and fly half Felipe Berchesi!

The Uruguayans have recently qualified as Americas 1 for the first time in their history, beating the USA and are targeting automatic qualification for RWC2027, which considering their pool will probably require victories over Italy and the Africa 1 qualifier. While it won’t be easy, I wouldn’t rule it out.

Georgia

What a performance from the Lelos! While this was far from Fiji at their best, the Georgian players did a great job of defending as a team. They limited the Pacific Islanders to just 2 tries, which is already more than can be said for many Tier 1 nations, but what makes this even more impressive is that one of these was not down to poor defence, but instead an interception that immediately put the Fijians in behind the Lelos as they had been looking to strike.

While they may not have created much of note in attack, much like los Teros against Italy, they fought hard through their pack and in the midfield, earning a number of penalties, with Tedo Abzhandadze having a solid game off the tee.

It’s no mean feat to front up against the Fijians for 80 minutes, the Georgians should be proud of their performance.

Fiji

As resilient as the Lelos were, this performance from Fiji was a big step down from last week’s against Wales. Despite keeping 15 men on the pitch, they failed to create much of note in a surprisingly error-strewn display, with their opening try even coming from an opportunistic interception 10 metres from their own line just moments after having an attack break down inside the Georgian 22.

In the second half, the performance improved slightly and it started leading to more chances, with Aminiasi Tuimaba unlucky to put a foot in touch as he attempted to go over for a second try, before some much more typical Fijian handling skills sent Viliame Mata over in the other corner.

It’s rare to see the Fijians play so bad, I can’t help but wonder if they played down to their opposition. If that is the case, they need to cut this out quickly. Days after arguably losing tot he worse team in their RWC2019 opener to Australia, they put in a poor performance against Uruguay and lost, which almost cost them automatic qualification for the 2023 tournament. Every team has the odd bad day, but with the quality of teams like Georgia and Uruguay improving, and the arrival of Moana Pasifika in Super Rugby Pacific hopefully beginning a regrowth of the other Pacific Island Teams, Fiji can ill afford to play down to their opposition too often.

England

The Marcus Smith era for England has begun. Owen Farrell’s injury firmly handed the reins over to him, and with the England captain only just set to be returning as the Six Nations begins, Smith took his chance to show that he doesn’t need the Saracen as a second playmaker at 12. Farrell has been a wonderful servant to England, but his role in the squad should now be one of the closer off the bench, or an experienced leader in a second string team.

Everyone was looking forward to seeing how a midfield of Smith, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade would do against the Springboks, and it looked incredible… for 6 minutes until Tuilagi went off injured. But even with Joe Marchant moving into the midfield, things ran smoothly and we saw some of the best attacking play England have produced in years, with Smith excelling, Freddie Steward continuing to secure the 15 shirt and Henry Slade (who is that second playmaker at 13) having one of his best games in an England shirt.

The ideal back line outside Smith is coming together now. May and Slade provide the experience at 11 and 13, while Steward’s ascension to the starting fullback role now means that Anthony Watson can fill the second wing spot once back from injury in the knowledge that there is someone capable covering the backfield. The only position that now needs sorting is 12. Manu Tuilagi is clearly the superstar option, but his injury history makes it difficult to trust him. While the Marchant and Slade pairing actually had a great impact on this game, I think that a more physical “crash ball” style centre would be better for the team.

To me, this leaves 2 options. Ollie Lawrence provides the long-term option aged just 22, and has looked decent when given a legitimate chance on the Test stage. The other option would be Mark Atkinson, who has finally received some recognition with recent call-ups after becoming one of the best 12s in the Premiership. While he would likely only be around to get the team through the World Cup and lacks the international experience, he has an incredible range of skills, being solid in defence while in attack, he was always able to crash through the line and find an unlikely offload, but in recent years has developed a passing and kicking game to make him an all-round threat.

Obviously as a Gloucester fan, I admit there may be some bias, but the thought of Marcus Smith and Henry Slade combining with Atkinson in midfield, and having players like Ellis Genge, Alex Dombrandt and Tom Curry taking his offloads as he gets through the contact is absolutely mouth-watering, and I think that he should be the one to fill the 12 shirt for the Six Nations.

South Africa

This game perfectly highlighted the issue with South Africa’s recent gameplan. If they come up against a team who can just about match them for physicality, things become difficult for them.

If they can’t completely overwhelm a team physically and get guarantee a try from their 5m lineouts, they find themselves in a position where they aren’t scoring many tries and are just relying on their kicks at goal. And while a team like England under Eddie Jones have the lack of discipline to allow South Africa to win that way, a team with the right firepower and a willingness to attack can also find ways to beat the South African defence and put a couple of tries on the board.

It can take time to build up a score just off the tee, but that can be wiped away in an instant by a try beneath the posts. South Africa need to add a more expansive side to their game, or teams will find a way to get around the defence and pull out wins, like David did against Goliath.

Wales

Looking back over the last 2 weeks, Wales have every right to be worried. Over the last 2 matches, Wales have spent 110 minutes out of a possible 160 with at least a 1-man advantage, and 30 of those minutes they actually had a 2 man advantage. At no point in the two games have they been at a numerical disadvantage. And yet it took a couple of later tries to rescue a victory—and put an undeserved gloss on it—against Fiji, and a last gasp Rhys Priestland penalty to defeat the Wallabies.

When you consider just how often recently the Welsh have found themselves on the right side of a red card, it is a real worry just how much the Welsh are struggling to take advantage of the extra space on the pitch.

Granted they have had some key players out injured, but you cannot rely on the same starting XV to play and win every match, while the players who have come in have generally done a good job. It is the overall style of play that appears to be the issue. Too often at the top of the game, teams play to not lose rather than play to win. Unless they look to improve their play to take advantage of the extra men—drawing in the defence to create space outside for the speedsters—they’ll soon find themselves facing the embarrassment of outnumbering their opponents but still coming away with nothing.

Australia

Deluded Dave Rennie may disagree, but Australia’s discipline was woeful in this game, an any capable Tier 1 nation would have annihilated them on the scoreboard. The Wallabies gave away 13 penalties in this game, which is already close to double the amount you really want to give away, but more than that was the impact of these penalties.

Of these 13 penalties, 5 were kicked for 15 points, while another was kicked to the corner for Ryan Elias’ converted try. 22 points conceded directly from Australian penalties. And yet even that isn’t the full story. Rob Valentini’s red card was a classic case of a big guy trying to make an impact on the game with a dominant hit, but not making the effort to get low enough, and while his shoulders may have hit low enough, the upright tackle and head-to-head clash made it a clear red that would leave the team without one of it’s enforcers and most destructive carriers for over an hour.

If the Wallabies are going to keep playing so naïvely, then that spell of success they had with Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi’s return will be exactly that, a bright spell in an otherwise dismal era.

France

This was a huge win for Les Bleus!

Ever since they sorted out their coaching team and started the rebuild with their very first match of the new World Cup cycle, they have been my favourites to win RWC2023 in front of home crowds. And while the team’s results have been largely impressive, and the young core of the team has become an experienced unit, they were still lacking something a victory that would make everyone sit up straight and take notice. Well now they have that.

This was a statement victory for the French. Romain Ntamack has been quiet at 12, but a move back to fly half unlocked him and he had one of the best games of his international career, while the site of him evading the All Blacks kick chase and running the ball out of his own in-goal to set up what was almost a 2-phase coast-to-coast try will live long in the memory. What makes this even more impressive is that fullback and goal kicker Melvyn Jaminet was uncapped this time last year, while key players like Virimi Vakatawa and captain Charles Ollivon were unavailable.

Granted this isn’t the New Zealand of old, but when an unfortunate officiating error from Wayne Barnes and Luke Pearce gifted them a 50:22 that began a spell of about 15 minutes of All Black dominance and a fight back on the scoreboard, the French still found an answer—with Ntamack’s break from his in-goal shifting the momentum and Damian Penaud’s interception try securing victory—when in the past they may have let the result getaway from them.

With France having 3 home games in the 2022 Six Nations, including Ireland and England, they have a chance of backing up this victory with a Grand Slam, which will help develop an air of invincibility at just the right time.

New Zealand

What now for New Zealand? After 2015 and 2016 saw the All Blacks go on an 18-Test winning streak 2021 has seen them lose 3 matches (20% of their Tests for the season). So what next?

Well with the Rugby World Cup just under 2 years away, the NZR have a big decision to make. Moving on from Ian Foster now will be admitting that they made a mistake in appointing him over Scott Robertson 2 years ago, but with Super Rugby Pacific just months away, would the Crusaders head coach abandon his team at such late notice and accept the role which he was previously refused?

But what if they stick with Foster?

Well first of all, he will need to stop chopping and changing his 23 so severely every match. Changes are understandable as you want to ensure that there is a depth to the squad both in quality and experience, but right now it is harming the team chemistry. Similarly, Rieko Ioane needs a settled position. It is one thing to cover another position in the case of injury, but he cannot be rotating between 11 and 13 every week as he has been.

Similarly, a decision needs to be made on the starting 10 and centres, as this is a unit that desperately needs to develop an understanding together if they want to compete against the best teams.

Have the All Blacks got time to turn things around? Yes. Do they have the quality? Of course! Will they? Only time will tell…

Ireland

It took Ireland a while to get going in this game, with the Pumas nabbing an early try, and a number of errors from the men in green early on. To be honest though, I think this can be explained away with the inclusion of Joey Carbery instead of Jonathan Sexton, the return of Robbie Henshaw from injury, a rare appearance for Robert Baloucoune and a couple of late changes on the pack, which saw Jack Conan and Iain Henderson both pull out in the build-up and James Ryan going off injured in the first half.

However, as the game went on, the chemistry built and by the end, the team was running rampant. This is a good sign for Ireland, who I feel should play the Six Nations without Sexton to get used to playing big games without him in case of injury during the World Cup, while Tadhg Beirne did a fantastic job of stepping up at the last moment and in the game to pick up the leadership roles of Henderson and Ryan.

While it would have been nice to see a less experienced player come into the back row following Conan’s injury, I can understand the decision to play Peter O’Mahony given the experience that had already been ruled out.

Now Ireland must build on their success this Autumn as they move into the Six Nations and towards the World Cup.

Argentina

This is a big moment for the Pumas. head coach Mario Ledesma’s contract is coming to an end and a decision must be made on whether he deserves a new one. So what is the case for and against?

First of all, let’s look at the against. Ledesma has just 7 wins from 30 Tests, 4 of which were Romania, Tonga, the USA and a Welsh team that was missing all of its Lions. While the results have rarely been there, even the performances have dropped off a cliff this year, with the wide array of exciting players in the back 3 feeding off scraps, while Santiago Carreras is being wasted as starting fly half considering he has no top-flight club experience at the position. Meanwhile, Tomás Lavanini continues to get picked despite being a red/yellow card in waiting, and other serial offenders like Guido Petti and Marcos Kremer also remain key players. But perhaps most damning of all have been the off-field problems, with a number of players—including former captain Pablo Matera—facing disciplinary action for breaching lockdowns. It all comes back to the leadership, and that appears to be lacking from Ledesma, and this embarrassment at the hands of Ireland should be the final score.

However, has he just been dealt a bad hand? Los Pumas have not played on home soil since before the 2019 World Cup and have been forced to enter a series of bubbles due to the coronavirus pandemic, under those situations, any team would struggle. Similarly, they found themselves out in the cold as COVID brought an end to the old format of Super Rugby, and while Super Rugby Pacific has welcomed 2 Pacific Island teams, there was no place for Los Jaguares, leaving Argentina without a franchise in a top-tier league.

To me though, selection is one of the big worries and for that reason, I think it’s time for someone else to come in and show what they could do.

Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v New Zealand

Rugby Championship 2020: Argentina v New Zealand

A rollercoaster Rugby Championship reached its end for New Zealand as they faced off against Argentina in Newcastle. The All Blacks were coming into the match off the back of losses to Australia and the Pumas, but quickly established themselves as the stronger team in this game, though Jordie Barrett missed an early kick from range and older brother Beauden knocked on at the line after Anton Lienert-Brown stopped the Pumas winning a Richie Mo’unga high ball in their 22. They soon found the breakthrough, though, as they managed to get a touch on Nicolás Sánchez’s attempted clearance to keep the ball in play, and after a series of phases, Mo’unga floated a pass out to Dane Coles to go over in the corner. Mo’unga added the conversion and a penalty, before making a thrilling break and spreading the ball wide to Caleb Clarke, however the wing was not quite able to stay in play as he tried to score in the corner. Mo’unga had one more chance to add o the score before halftime, but the ball came out off the posts and the Pumas were able to clear their lines for a 0-10 halftime deficit.

The second half opened with both sides looking dangerous in attack, but after New Zealand quickly worked their way into the Pumas 22, it took until the 50ᵗʰ minute for them to dot down, though this was denied for a knock-on by Caleb Clarke. The All Blacks won a penalty from the resulting scrum and kicked to the corner, and a clever lineout move by the forwards saw Ardie Savea crash over from close range, Mo’unga adding the extras. The game continued to be a close affair as the substitutions stared en masse, but 2 of the replacements proved key as Santiago Carreras, on at 15 in place of Sánchez, struggled attacking flat to the line and gifted the ball to Will Jordan to run in from halfway twice in 2 minutes to secure a bonus point victory, with Mo’unga adding both conversions. New Zealand thought they had added the cherry to the top of the cake as the lock ticked into the red with Reiko Ioane crossing, but a TMO review instead awarded a penalty to the Pumas and saw Tyrel Lomax sent to the sin bin for a clearout to the head. The Pumas had the chance to kick the ball out and end the game, but instead chose to kick to touch and launch one more attack, however the All Blacks won the ball back and put Patrick Tuipulotu through a gap to add an undeserved shine on the result, Mo’unga adding the 2 points to secure a 0-38 victory that all-but guarantees the All Blacks will win the Tri Nations.

Testing the depth

The Pumas certainly drew the short straw with the fixture scheduling after South Africa pulled out, as they are the only one of the 3 teams involved this year who has to play on 4 consecutive weeks. As such, it was no giant surprise to see a number of changes to the 23, but unfortunately I feel that it proved costly in his match.

In place of the highly experienced prop pairing of Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro and Francisco Gómez Kodela, Santiago Medrano (24 years old) and Mayco Vivas (22) were given the start, but they found the All Blacks scrum too much for them to deal with. Obviously the only way they can learn to scrummage at the top level is by putting them into matches like this, but unfortunately it proved costly in this match as their scrum was in almost constant retreat and giving away penalties at an alarming rate, which was gifting New Zealand possession and territory far too often.

As if that wasn’t enough, the number of scrums skyrocketed as a heavily changed back line struggled to create any cohesion, with too many attempts to put a player through a gap resulting in the ball going to floor. This only got worse as Santiago Carreras – who usually plays in the back 3 for Argentina – was brought on at fly half, as he clearly wasn’t comfortable in the position and gifted Will Jordan 2 tries when he tried to play flat to the line and bring the back line into play.

Obviously it was disappointing on the day, but the players will have learned a lot from this match and will benefit from this in the long term. And I’m sure there will be a lot more focus in the coming week on building the chemistry.

Inefficient

A 0-38 victory certainly looks good on paper, but I can’t help feel that anyone who actually watched the match will feel that this didn’t really do much to help Ian Foster’s job security.

When you think of the All Blacks, you think of a team that pounces on your mistakes and exploits them by making the right decisions to score the try. Instead, this game was just another example of blown opportunities from New Zealand.

Beauden Barrett is meant to be one of the best players in the world but couldn’t even hold onto the ball as he crossed the line under pressure from Felipe Ezcurra, while Reiko Ioane may also be thankful that Tyrel Lomax’s indiscretion meant his potential try was not looked at further. Mo’unga created a brilliant chance with his break and wide pass to Clarke (who had already wasted one chance with a knock on 5m from the line), but the winger was then selfish by trying to round the defender himself, rather than holding his line to draw the defence as they rushed across and then feeding the man who was in the process of looping behind him. And then finally in the early minutes of the second half, Anton Lienert-Brown wasted an overlap 5m from the line by playing the ball back inside.

This is not the clinical team that we are used to, this is a bunch of players who have lost direction and were lucky Carreras gifted them 2 tries to make it to the bonus point. New Zealand need to replace Foster with someone who can refresh the team, pick the players on form and get the best out of them. That man is currently at the Crusaders: Scott Robertson. But they will need to move quick as there’s always the chance he could move abroad to take on an international role elsewhere.

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Rugby Championship 2020: New Zealand v Argentina

Rugby Championship 2020: New Zealand v Argentina

As we entered the third week of the Tri Nations edition of the Rugby Championship, Argentina entered the fray in Sydney, facing off against New Zealand.

The All Blacks were putting out what they considered their strongest possible team following last week’s loss to Australia, but after a confrontational opening 15, they found themselves level at 3-3 courtesy of penalties from Richie Mo’unga and Nicolás Sánchez. As the half progressed though, it was the Pumas who found the breakthrough, and when New Zealand failed to cover Sánchez’s chip into their 22, the fly half eventually recovered the ball and crossed under the posts for the opening try, which he converted before adding another penalty to extend the lead. The South Americans’ defence continued to frustrate the All Blacks, and when Tomás Cubelli slipped away at a ruck and fed Juan Imhoff, it took a fantastic last ditch tackle from Aaron Smith to halt the winger and as the phases progressed, Richie Mo’unga managed to hold up the ball as Pablo Matera crossed the try line. The Pumas won a penalty from the resulting scrum however, and Sánchez kicked it through the posts for a 3-16 lead at the break – their highest halftime differential against New Zealand.

The second half began much like the first, with the Argentinian defence holding strong and Sánchez punishing any New Zealand indiscipline with 3 points. However, a strong driving maul from the All Black won them a penalty which they kicked to the corner, and a quick ball to the front caught the Pumas out and allowed Sam Cane to be driven over for a try, converted by Mo’unga. Any hopes of a kiwi comeback were diminished, though, as Sánchez added another penalty while the Pumas defence continued to hold firm, and when Sánchez kicked a 6ᵗʰ penalty with just minutes left, a historic win was confirmed. There was still time for one last hurrah from New Zealand, which earned Caleb Clarke his first Test try, but it was just a consolation and as the Argentine contingent in the crowd made themselves heard, the Pumas were able to celebrate a 15-25 victory – their first ever win over New Zealand.

Back to basics

So many times we have seen the Pumas come out looking to take teams on offensively and falling to a gallant defeat. This was a very different performance however. While their attacking play was limited, their defence was incredible.

Led by flankers Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer, and with debutant Santiago Chocobares at 12, the defence was near-perfect, with barely a tackle missed all game and a strong team effort meaning that though the All Blacks may make metres and occasionally get through the first line, they very rarely looked a threat.

And everywhere else on the pitch, they just did the basics right, playing a good territorial game and being reliable at their own set piece while causing issues for New Zealand on opposition ball. And more than anything, they showed desire, fighting for everything and standing up for their teammates – epitomised by captain Matera from first minute to last.

You could see how much this meant to the Pumas at the end, and by simply doing the basics, they were fully deserving of the win.

Change or be changed?

While doing the basics right was key to this win for the Pumas, for so long that was just a prerequisite to having a chance to beat the All Blacks. This team looks a shadow of their former selves under Ian Foster and with his opening 5 games now resulting in just 2 wins, a draw and 2 losses, things don’t look good. This is the first time the All Blacks have lost consecutive games since 2011, and considering they have come against an inexperienced, rebuilding Australia and an Argentina team whose players have barely played since the outbreak of COVID-19, you can’t help think that their final match in the tournament against Argentina could decide if Foster keeps his job.

And for that reason, Foster needs to throw caution to the wind and pick on form rather than the tried and tested he has gone for in his so-called “strongest XI” of late. Hoskins Sotutu needs to be given the start and fellow Blues back rowers Dalton Papali’i and Akira Ioane should be joining him and Sam Cane in the 23. Beauden Barrett needs dropping  from the XV so that Jordie Barrett can play 15 and Mo’unga needs to be allowed to play his natural game like we see at the Crusaders. Ngani Laumape needs to be given the 12 shirt as he is a game-changing talent, while Reiko Ioane at 13 will create a match-up nightmare, while Caleb Clarke and Jordie Barrett should be joined in the back 3 by Will Jordan, who was one of the form players in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Will this be enough to save Ian Foster’s job? Only time will tell.

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