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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Top 20 Best Irish Rugby Players of All Time

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There have been many fantastic Irish rugby players over the years. Whether you can appreciate a prolific point scorer, a legendary captain, or a dynamic hooker, our list celebrates them all. Below, you will find the 20 best Irish rugby players ever.

Judging players just from their stats and achievements is very difficult in rugby. Especially since accurate statistics have only been around for the past 30 years. Instead, we had to look beyond the statistics and judge the best rugby players based on other metrics. What they contributed to the sport, the success they achieved in a green shirt, and even their exploits off the pitch. However, no list is perfect. If you think we got it wrong or missed anyone, let us know on the social channels!

If you are a rugby union fan, we are paying especially close attention to the URC and ERCC competitions. It’s our goal to provide you with the latest rugby predictions and betting tips. Plus, we have articles dedicated to explaining the rules of rugby. If you are unsure what we mean by a hooker or prop, then check out our list of rugby positions explained. Without further delays, let’s dive head-first into the ruck.

20. Tadhg Furlong

Tadhg Furlong scoring a try

Starting our list of the best Irish rugby players is Tadhg Furlong. Furlong plays his rugby for Leinster and has been with the province since 2013. In that time, he has established himself as one of the most consistent players in club-level rugby. The prop plays a commanding role in a strong Leinster side.

Furlong made his debut for Ireland in 2015 against Wales and has become a staple in the national team. He has picked up 76 caps and has been iconic on the big stage. They selected him twice in the Six Nations Team of the Championship and three times in the World Rugby Dream Team of the Year. Success has followed him throughout his career, including three Six Nation wins, two Grand Slams, and three Triple Crowns. With Leinster, Furlong lifted the European Rugby Champions Cup in 2018 and the Pro12 title on four occasions.

Arguably, Furlong has improved with age as he continues to shine in Leinster blue and Irish green. At 31 years of age, he could add to his impressive trophy haul and wind up even higher up our list.

19. David Humphreys

David Humphreys celebrating with Brian O'Driscol

Next on the list is fly-half David Humphreys. The Northern Irishman played most of his career in Ulster with a brief two-year spell with the London Irish. In his two stints with Ulster, Humphreys picked up over 160 appearances and 1,585 points. Since retiring as a player, he has coached Ulster, Gloucester Rugby, and Georgia.

His Ireland international career began in 1996 and ended in 2006. He picked up 72 caps over his ten-year spell, including some remarkable performances. At the time of his retirement, he had the most caps for an out-half in Irish history and the most points scored for the national team. Now he is third on the list of most points with 560, a long way off Ronan O’Gara in second with 1,083.

Perhaps Humphreys’ most impressive achievement in an Irish shirt is his record for most points scored in a single match. He recorded 26 twice against Scotland and Italy in 2003, the joint-third most ever scored by an Irish player. He also picked up 24 in a game against Argentina in 1999. While Johnny Sexton and O’Gara have eclipsed his records, many of us still remember David Humphreys’s impact on the Irish side.

18. John Hayes

John Hayes shrugging off a tackle

John Hayes was an iconic Irish rugby player, as he was a late bloomer. Originally, Hayes was a 6ft 4, 19 stone hurler for Cappamore GAA. Fortunately, his size made rugby a straightforward transition and his Munster debut in 1998. He remained with the Reds until 2011, capping off a career with over 217 appearances.

Hayes started playing for Ireland in 2000 and enjoyed an 11-year international career. In that time, he racked up 105 caps, which puts him eighth on the all-time list of Irish rugby players. He is level with Peter O’Mahony, but we don’t think Hayes will mind too much if another Munster icon surpasses his tally.

Hayes was a prop, which meant he was instrumental in leading the team. Whether it was for Munster or Ireland, he was a role model no matter the occasion. He is a three-time URC winner and two-time ERCC champion. For Ireland, he picked up a Six Nations and Grand Slam in 2009, plus four Triple Crowns across his career.

17. Rob Kearney

Rob Kearney running with the rugby ball in hand

As we close in on the top 15 best Irish rugby players of all time, we get closer to the legends of the game. Rob Kearney was a Leinster player for 15 years before he played six months in Australia. The Irish international enjoyed eight appearances for the Western Force before retiring. For Leinster, Kearney had just under 220 Leinster caps, registering 238 points.

Kearney’s Irish career began in 2007, but he was unlucky not to get his first cap two years earlier. He was called up for the 2005 autumn international but had to wait for his first cap. Kearney was influential in the Irish team, including helping Ireland win the Six Nations, Triple Crown, and Grand Slam in 2009. He would repeat this success nine years later by helping Ireland win another Six Nations and Grand Slam in 2018.

His rugby career ended with four Six Nations wins and two Grand Slams. He was a part of two Lions tours, including a series win in 2013. For Leinster, he helped the team win the European Rugby Champions Cup four times and the Pro14 title on six occasions. He also lifted the European Challenge Cup with Leinster in 2013. Kearney had a successful career, and few could argue against his inclusion on our list.

16. Tom Kiernan

A colour photo of Tom Kiernan playing rugby in the 1960s

No list of the greatest Irish rugby players is complete without a nod to the best players of old. Tom Kiernan played his rugby for Ireland between 1960 and 1973. While some of you saw him play in the flesh, none of the team at Novibet was so lucky. However, that does not take away from what he achieved, even if it was over 60 years ago.

The fullback was an inspiration to the national team, picking up 54 caps and captaining Ireland 24 times. When he retired, he became the most capped Irish player, most experienced captain, and record point scorer in international games with 158. He remains sixth on the list of all-time test matches as Ireland captain, behind legendary players like Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton. In his 24 games as captain, he recorded a 66.67 win percentage, the third-highest in the nation’s history.

You could argue Tom’s nephew Michael Keirnan should also be on our list. With 43 caps and 308 points, Michael remains the fourth-highest point scorer for Ireland. Well, stay tuned as we plan to expand our list of Irish legends and Michael Keirnan would be a welcomed addition!

15. Keith Earls

Keith Earls diving for a try

The 15th-best Irish rugby player of all time is Munster legend Keith Earls. Any list that starts with a player like Earls is always a good one in our books. He began his professional career with Munster in 2007 and stayed with the club until 2023. In October 2023, Earls announced his retirement from rugby union after 16 years in the game. He retired following Ireland’s Rugby World Cup exit after picking up his 101-test cap for his country.

Greatness was destined for Earls after making his debut in 2008. He scored his first international try with his first touch in the game. From there, Earls helped Ireland win the 2018 Six Nations, Grand Slam, and Triple Crown. 2018 was the best year of his career as they voted him the Munster Rugby Player of the Year and Rugby Players Ireland Players’ Player of the Year.

Looking at his international career statistics, Earls played for 15 years. During that time, he was on the winning side 63 times and only lost 34 matches. Earls scored 36 tries for Ireland, nine of which came against the Italians and four against the Welsh. Players like Earls have been fantastic to watch. He was one of the best Irish rugby players for his offensive capabilities, but he also provided outstanding cover for the team, including many try-saving tackles.

  • Years Active: 2007-2023
  • Ireland Caps: 101
  • Ireland Points: 180
  • Six Nations Wins: 1

14. Jamie Heaslip

Jamie Heaslip shrugging off a tackle

Next on our list is Jamie Heaslip, a number eight, who spent his entire playing career with Leinster. His professional career began in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2006 that he secured his first cap for Ireland. Heaslip made history when he became the 1,000th player to represent his country.

When Heaslip progressed through the Irish ranks, competition was fierce as they stacked the team with some of the nation’s greatest talents. In 2010, he was the first player from Ireland to receive a red card in the professional era, following a knee in the ruck against New Zealand. Ireland was beaten thoroughly on the day, but the incident helped mature Heaslip in the long run.

Declan Kidney named Heaslip the new Ireland captain in the 2013 Six Nations. He replaced one of the best Irish rugby players of all time, Brian O’Driscoll. From here, he became an integral part of the team. They nominated Heaslip for the World Rugby Player of the Year award in 2016, following his Try of the Year award against Italy in the 2016 Six Nations. Injuries cut his playing career short, and he retired internationally in 2017.

Heaslip enjoyed a lot of success throughout his career. He won three Heineken Cups and three Pro12 league titles with Leinster. Internationally, he won three Six Nations, two Triple Crowns, and one Grand Slam. He also won the World Rugby Men’s 15s Try of the Decade. They nominated Heaslip for the World Rugby Player of the Year award twice, and he was a four-time nominee for the EPCR European Player of the Year.

  • Years Active: 2005-2018
  • Ireland Caps: 95
  • Ireland Points: 65
  • Six Nations Wins: 3

13. Peter O’Mahony

Peter OMahony shaking hands with Johnny Sexton

The thirteenth-best Irish rugby player of all time is Peter O’Mahony. The Munster legend is still active in rugby union but has spent some time on the touchline in recent months after picking up an injury. O’Mahony made another important contribution on the international stage, helping Ireland secure another Six Nations.

His professional career began in 2010 with Munster, and he remains a crucial player for the Red Army. O’Mahony made his Ireland debut in 2012 and has since clocked up 105 appearances wearing the green shirt. Things started slowly on the international stage for the flanker, but a Man-of-the-Match award in 2014 against the Welsh was the start of an impressive career. O’Mahony was part of the team that won the 2014 Six Nations, and he started every game in the 2015 Six Nations to help Ireland retain the title. The first time Ireland won consecutive championships since the late 40s.

O’Mahony was a crucial influence on Ireland’s success over the recent years. He is a powerful player and had no trouble doing the dirty work and adding a bit of flair. O’Mahony won the Six Nations five times, three Triple Crowns and two Grand Slam awards since 2014. 2023 was his most successful year yet, winning the United Rugby Championship with Munster and the three major trophies for Ireland. Whatever you think of Peter O’Mahony, it’s hard to argue against including him on the list.

  • Years Active: 2010-Present
  • Ireland Caps: 105
  • Ireland Points: 25
  • Six Nations Wins: 5

12. Cian Healy

Cian Healy celebrating after the game

Next, we have Cian Healy, a prop still active in the United Rugby Championship. Healy made his Leinster debut in 2007 at 19 years of age. He waited until 2009 for his first professional cap for Ireland, and they have capped him 129 times since then. After his debut against Australia, he had a Man of the Match performance against the Aussies in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Healy was another Irish player who demonstrated immaturity on the world stage. He appeared before a disciplinary hearing after stamping on Dan Cole’s ankle during the Six Nations in 2013. After that incident, Healy was integral to the national squad and was a key member of the Grand Slam-winning team in 2018. In 129 games, he was on the winning side 84 times and scored 12 tries for his country.

Healy is still on the books at Leinster, and the prop is eligible for future Ireland selections. So far, he has won five cup competitions with Leinster and seven league titles. He is another Ireland rugby player with five Six Nations victories, two Grand Slams, and three Triple Crowns. Healy is one of the best Irish rugby players ever, but have we seen the last of him in an Ireland shirt?

  • Years Active: 2007-Present
  • Ireland Caps: 129
  • Ireland Points: 60
  • Six Nations Wins: 5

11. Denis Hickie

Denis Hickie running with the ball

As we edge closer to the top ten, the names on the list become more synonymous with Irish rugby. However, there are a few players which you might not remember, or they retired long before you were born. One such overlooked player is Denis Hickie. Hickie began his playing career in 1996 for Leinster, where he stayed until retirement in 2007.

Hickie was the previous record holder for the most tries scored while wearing an Ireland shirt until Brian O’Driscoll beat it. He sits fourth on the all-time list of Irish try scorers, behind Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe. Unfortunately, Hickie had an injury-filled career which cost him appearances for the national side. He only made 62 appearances for Ireland. But he got 145 points on the board, including 29 tries.

Towards the end of his career, Hickie was out of favour for international events given his vast number of injuries. However, this allowed him to focus on club-level rugby. He said:

“I’ve always been a Leinster player. My dad played for Leinster, my uncle played for Leinster, and my cousin played for Leinster. I’m a Leinster lad. I don’t make any apologies for it. That’s my team.” -Denis Hickie

Who knows how successful Hickie could have been without the consistent injury troubles. But, even with prolonged stretches on the sideline, he always came back sharp and just as skilful with the ball in hand. Players like Hickie deserve recognition as one of the best Irish rugby players ever.

  • Years Active: 1996-2007
  • Ireland Caps: 62
  • Ireland Points: 145
  • Six Nations Wins: 0

10. Conor Murray

Conor Murray reacting to a defeat

Rugby players like Conor Murray need no introduction, even though he has not featured much in our rugby betting tips this season. Nevertheless, Murray began his career with Munster in 2010. His first Ireland cap came in 2011, and he has worn the green shirt 116 times.

In his 116 games for Ireland, he has 17 tries and has contributed 110 international points. He played a crucial part in Ireland’s success from the early 2010s. Murray has five Six Nations, two Grand Slams, and is a three-time Triple Crown winner. His achievements include Munster and Rugby Players Ireland Players’ Player of the Year in 2014 and 2017, respectively. He was also voted in the World Rugby Men’s 15s Team of the Decade and Midi Olympique World Player of the Year 2017.

Murray has been a fantastic servant to his country, including dozens of iconic moments. His minutes for Ireland and Munster have decreased recently compared to other seasons, but that is to be expected 13 years into an illustrious career. Players like Murray were iconic on the pitch, helping to inspire the next generation of Irish talent.

  • Years Active: 2010-Present
  • Ireland Caps: 116
  • Ireland Points: 105
  • Six Nations Wins: 5

9. Willie John McBride

Willie John McBride preparing for a line out

Willie John McBride is next on our list of the best Irish rugby players ever. McBride is famous for his exploits in an Irish shirt, and he was instrumental for the British and Irish Lions in the early 60s to mid-70s. He made 63 appearances for Ireland and was a part of five tours with the Lions.

McBride made his international debut in 1962, quickly establishing himself in the squad. In 1965, he was a part of the Ireland team that defeated Australia in Sydney, the first home nation team to beat a southern hemisphere side on their turf. When they selected him for the 71 Lions tour, many believed he was too old to compete with the best players in the world. However, he helped the squad register their first and last series win against New Zealand.

Rugby was a different sport back when McBride played. When he captained the Lions to a 3-0 series in South Africa, the team had to cope with dirty tactics. The South Africans had a reputation for punching, kicking, and head-butting opponents, so McBride enforced a “one in, all in rule”. Whenever a South African player would bend the rules, every Lions player had to clobber the nearest Springbok. Back then, there were no video cameras, but can you imagine what that scene would have looked like?

  • Years Active: 1962-1975
  • Ireland Caps: 63
  • Ireland Points: 4
  • Six Nations Wins: 2

8. Keith Wood

Keith Wood leaning in for a score

The eighth-best Irish rugby player of all time is Keith Wood. The legendary hooker had many nicknames, such as “The Raging Potato” and “Uncle Fester”, but nobody can dispute his contributions to rugby. Wood earned a reputation as one of the greatest players in his position, as proven by his Player of the Year award. In 2001, they voted him the World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year, and he made it into the Hall of Fame in 2005.

Wood was a talented athlete who played rugby union and was a member of the Clare GAA in 1988. He began playing rugby in 1991 with Garryowen before moving to the Harlequins in 1995. Wood represented Munster in 1999 but left for the Harlequins after a year. He made his first Ireland appearance in 1994, and his last international cap came in 2003.

His strength and leadership skills were second to none. It was these traits that earned him recognition on the world stage as a hooker. His contributions to Irish rugby and the entire sport are impossible to measure. It is hard to talk about the greatest rugby players in the past 30 years without mentioning Keith Wood.

  • Years Active: 1995-2003
  • Ireland Caps: 58
  • Ireland Points: 75
  • Six Nations Wins: 0

7. Ronan O’Gara

Ronan O’Gara yelling from the touchline

Fly-half Ronan O’Gara is an Irish rugby legend. He has the second most appearances of any Irish player with 128 and is the second-highest point scorer in Ireland’s history. Only Johnny Sexton has more points in a green shirt, 1,083 for O’Gara and 1,108 for Sexton. These two men are in a league of their own for the most Irish points scored as third place David Humphreys has 560.

O’Gara played for Munster from 1997 to 2013. During that time, he clocked 240 appearances and over 2,600 points. He started playing for Ireland in 2000 and achieved all his appearances in 13 years of service. Since retiring in 2013, he has held down three coaching positions. First, he was the defence coach for Racing 92 before becoming assistant coach with the Crusaders in 2018. In 2019, O’Gara became the head coach for La Rochelle, leading the side to three consecutive ERCC finals. The French side has beaten Leinster in the two most recent finals.

O’Gara was a point-scoring maestro. He scored every Irish point in several games, carrying his team to victory. One of his most iconic moments came in 2009 when he overtook Jonny Wilkinson as the top Six Nations point scorer. During the tournament, he kicked a 78th-minute drop goal to beat Wales and secure Ireland’s first Grand Slam in 61 years.

Players like Ronan O’Gara are special. What he did consistently on the international stage was almost unheard of. It only makes sense that his success has continued at a coaching level. He won the Top 14 with Racing 92, two Super Rugby Pacific titles, and became a consecutive winner of the Challenge Cup with La Rochelle.

  • Years Active: 1997-2013
  • Ireland Caps: 128
  • Ireland Points: 1,083
  • Six Nations Wins: 1

6. Mike Gibson

Photo of Mike Gibson kicking a ball

You can’t have a list of the best Irish rugby players without talking about Mike Gibson. He might have retired from the sport long before some of us were born, but don’t let that take anything away from the man. IRB Hall of Famer, Syd Millar knew what a generational talent Gibson was. When the Irish centre was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011, Millar said:

“He was one of the finest players of his generation, one of the finest players ever to represent Ireland and the British & Irish Lions and a man who epitomised the very ethos of the Game and its values.” – Syd Millar

Gibson was an ultimate athlete with an unrivalled understanding of the game. Before moving to centre, he played for Ireland in four positions, including fly-half. Gibson could do it all. He registered nine tries, 16 penalties, seven conversions, and six drop goals in test matches. He also held records for most caps for Ireland until 2005 and most Five Nations appearances until Ronan O’Gara pipped him in 2011.

Even more modern-day players knew what a talent Gibson was. Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll had this to say about him in 2011:

“At times when Irish rugby wasn’t successful, Mike was always the shining light. He played international rugby for 15 years and that speaks volumes about him. He was a magnificent player and a true ambassador for the game.” – Brian O’Driscoll

You can’t discuss the best to play for Ireland without mentioning Mike Gibson. He epitomises everything good about rugby and why it’s special to represent Ireland internationally.

  • Years Active: 1964-1979
  • Ireland Caps: 69
  • Ireland Points: 112
  • Six Nations Wins: 2

5. Rory Best

Rory Best holding his head

Now that we have entered the top five best Irish rugby players, we can discuss some inspirational men. In fifth place is Rory Best. The iconic hooker represented Ulster from 2004 to 2019. Best is one of the most capped Irish rugby players, registering 124 appearances for his country.

Best had too many incredible moments during his career to summarise. He was the captain who led Ireland to their first-ever victory over New Zealand. He also captained the side for the 2018 Six Nations Championship, leading them to a third Grand Slam and Triple Crown. Perhaps what will make this memory even sweeter is that he led Ireland to victory at Twickenham Stadium on St Patrick’s Day.

Players like Best are worth their weight in gold. He is the only captain of Ireland to beat Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. He is a four-time Six Nations winner, achieving two Grand Slams and four Triple Crowns. Rory Best is one of the greatest Irish rugby union players ever.

  • Years Active: 2004-2019
  • Ireland Caps: 124
  • Ireland Points: 60
  • Six Nations Wins: 4

4. Jackie Kyle

Jackie Kyle holding the ball

Having paid our respects to several players of the modern age, we feel obliged to mention Jackie Kyle. I’m betting none of us ever saw Kyle play, but that’s ok. It’s easy to appreciate the man’s talents even though it was well over 50 years ago. He played for Ulster at club level and made his first official Ireland appearance in 1947. He unofficially represented Ireland before that, against the British Army XV.

During his career, he made 46 appearances and scored 24 points. He made history in 1948 when at the Five Nations, helping Ireland win the grand slam. Kyle played in all four games, and they credited him with the success of the entire tournament. He also helped Ireland win the Triple Crown in 1951 and his third Five Nations championship. Although he retired from international rugby in 1958, he continued playing until 1963.

It’s not possible to compare men from this period to any time in recent years. They were just a different breed to what we take for granted nowadays. That’s why looking back at the best Irish rugby players helps give you some perspective.

  • Years Active: 1946-1958
  • Ireland Caps: 46
  • Ireland Points: 24
  • Six Nations Wins: 3

3. Paul O’Connell

Paul O’Connell in a team line up before a match

The third-best Irish rugby player ever is Paul O’Connell. The legendary lock is seventh on the all-time list of Ireland rugby caps with 108. His playing career began with Munster in 2001, earning him an Ireland cap. The public was endeared to him immediately as he scored a try against Wales on his debut in 2002. However, O’Connell confirmed after the match that he had no memory of the event. He said:

“I scored a try, but I don’t remember it. I went to tackle Craig Quinnell, and he knocked me clean, unconscious with his elbow. Apparently, I played on for another 25 minutes, scored a try, then eventually, with seven minutes left in the first half, I came around. I didn’t know what was going on and so I walked off the pitch.” – Paul O’Connell

O’Connell was incredibly successful at both club and international level. For Ulster, he won the ERCC twice, the URC three times, and picked up the Celtic Cup in 2005. He is also a three-time Six Nations champion, including four Triple Crowns and one Grand Slam.

O’Connell is a hero. What he did on and off the pitch over the years was incredible. We have included a small highlight reel to give you an idea of the type of player Paul O’Connell was.

  • Years Active: 2001-2016
  • Ireland Caps: 108
  • Ireland Points: 40
  • Six Nations Wins: 3

2. Brian O’Driscoll

Brian O’Driscoll going for a try

The top two best Irish rugby players of all time are difficult to split apart. Brian O’Driscoll was an outside centre for Leinster. Even though His professional career began in 1999, He didn’t play for the national side until 2002. O’Driscoll was the Irish captain from 2003 until 2012 and is one of the most famous rugby players ever.

He is the most capped Irish rugby union player in history with 141 test matches and Ireland’s most capped player at 133. O’Driscoll is also the eighth-highest try scorer in international rugby and the highest-scoring centre. He has the record for the most Six Nation tries with 26 and the most Heineken Cup tries as an Irishman. They selected him as a player of the tournament at three Six Nations Championships.

O’Driscoll was incredibly successful in his lengthy career. He won the Celtic Cup four times, the Heineken Cup three times, and the European Challenge Cup once. He led Ireland to two Six Nations, four Triple Crowns, and one Grand Slam in his 15-year career. Everybody knew how special O’Driscoll was, and it was no surprise when they selected him for the World Rugby Men’s 15s Team of the Decade. We could go on and on about his achievements, but we think the highlights above do him more justice.

  • Years Active: 1999-2014
  • Ireland Caps: 133
  • Ireland Points: 145
  • Six Nations Wins: 2

1. Johnny Sexton

Johnny Sexton with his thumb up

The best Irish rugby player of all time is Johnny Sexton. He is one of Ireland’s most famous players and only recently retired. After Ireland’s defeat in the World Cup, Sexton announced his retirement in October 2023. He had an incredible professional career, beginning with Leinster in 2006 and ending with the Irish side in 2023.

The fly-half began playing for Ireland in 2009, and he immediately showed us all what he can do. He scored 16 points on his debut in Fiji, landing five conversions and two penalties in difficult weather conditions. In November 2009, they selected Sexton ahead of one of the best Irish rugby players, Ronan O’Gara. He thrived in that match, kicking all of Ireland’s 15 points and playing with a broken hand.

Sexton won four Six Nations, two Grand Slams, three Triple Crowns, and three test series. He also won the ERCC on four occasions, the Pro14 six times, and the Irish Shield twice. Sexton was the World Rugby Player of the Year in 2018, and we will deeply miss watching him play this season.

  • Years Active: 2006-2023
  • Ireland Caps: 118
  • Ireland Points: 1,108
  • Six Nations Wins: 4

Who Are the Best Irish Rugby Players of All-Time?

There you have it, the 20 best Irish rugby players ever. The names above are some of the most famous rugby players from Ireland. We have big plans to continue celebrating the greats, so check back here for more fantastic lists of the greatest rugby players. Plus, we are keeping a close eye on the URC and ERCC this season, so give us a read if you are looking for next weekend’s rugby predictions and betting tips.

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