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Sonny days on a road less travelled

Date

Code-hopping superstar Sonny Bill Williams and his manager, Khoder Nasser, make no apologies for how they do business, writes Steve Kilgallon.

Sonny Bill Williams ... prefers to choose a challenge over comfort.

Sonny Bill Williams ... prefers to choose a challenge over comfort. Photo: Getty Images

It will please some people to learn that when Sonny Bill Williams walked out on a $2 million, five-year contract in Sydney, flew to France in secret and decided to play for a team owned by a multi-millionaire, he found himself at his lowest ebb. Back in Australia, he was being taunted as Money Bill, or if you were particularly clever, $onny Bill, the man who had swapped loyalty for lucre. "It wasn't about money,'' Williams says now. "Although everyone said it was … I felt like I was being abused by the authorities, and had to make a stand for myself.''

So he borrowed $750,000 from his friend Anthony Mundine to buy his way out of his contractual obligations in Australia and redirect his career on his own terms. "And at that point,'' Williams says. "I had nothing to lose. I had no money, I was in debt. It was the lowest of the lows.''

Five years later, Williams is an All Blacks world champion, boxing professionally, making a return to his first sport, rugby league, which is expected to add millions to the game's bottom line. He has reached this career zenith, it could be argued, by taking a ground-breaking approach in which he refuses to be a forelock-tugging serf to sport's powerbrokers. Emboldened by his experience in French rugby, Williams now signs only short-term contracts - and negotiates fiercely, not least for the freedom to box.

Williams's new approach to the business of sport seems to be influencing others. When he demanded "flexibility'' from the NZRU, other players followed his lead; when he made it clear that rugby league authorities could not dictate his off-season activities, others wanted dispensation to earn big bucks in Japanese rugby during their downtime. Deep inside, Williams says, he remains the shy Samoan boy in the corner of the dressing room. "You have to force yourself not to be, because you hate to admit it, but the world is sometimes not a nice place.'' So how did this man rewrite all the rules of the sports business?

You might re-direct the question to Williams's manager, Khoder Nasser, the Sydney-raised son of Lebanese Muslims, once described in a News Ltd paper as a man with ''no basic values'' who had turned footballers into mercenaries.

Nasser fell into sports management by chance; after befriending a young Mundine, then a brilliant if outspoken league star for St George, he was anointed Mundine's manager despite a CV that stretched to stints in a cafe and a chemist. Nasser says he's simply fortunate, a sports fanatic living the dream. "I get to be in an intimate position to watch it all unravel,'' he says. "Dead serious, I am extremely lucky. I find myself in an extremely privileged position.''

Yet he is a fearsome and unusual negotiator. Nasser works alone, acts for only a handful of clients. Doesn't own a computer. Prefers a handshake to contracts, even with his own clients. Says he isn't interested in sponsors, fringe benefits and other fripperies, but simply "works out a number'' and concentrates on it. He explains his approach by saying: "Everyone can search for a better and better deal. Where does it end? You look at the contract, you think, 'I am getting screwed here, I gotta push a bit more here.' I think, 'I am happy, he's happy,' that's it.''

Nasser thinks most sports organisations are greedy, have a "siege mentality'' and want to "cheat'' the regular athlete of what he's worth. He says agents would be redundant if the authorities were honest. "But in the world of business, people sometimes think it is better to rob the other person.'' At this, he flashes a manic grin; while this is his first interview in more than two years, Nasser enjoys being provocative.

Nasser sees his small roster - he represents only Williams and the Waikato-born Wallabies star Quade Cooper, and until a split last year over a failed US boxing promotion, Mundine - as a positive, arguing agents with multiple clients collude with administrators.

And it also suits him because he says his approach works only because he represents exceptional athletes. Otherwise, ''they walk all over you. Khoder gonna walk in and say, 'This guy is worth $100,000?' and they say, 'Well f--- you, he can have $50,000 or you can f--- off.' You can't do shit, you got nothing. I am absolutely powerless [without talent].''

Williams dumped his first manager, Gavin Orr, ''after finding out a few things'' and because he was uncomfortable with being touted around different clubs. He knew Nasser socially from hanging out at Boxa, a Sydney cafe Nasser co-owns with Mundine, and asked him to take over his affairs. Critics chart this as the point Williams began to rebel; he went on to infamously walk out on the Bulldogs and flee to France over a contract dispute.

''People go on about him [Nasser] being money-hungry, but he's doing all right for himself, he honestly doesn't need me,'' Williams says. "He may rub a lot of people up the wrong way, but he's always straight to the point: yes or no. Other managers like to bargain and use clubs. We say yes or no. We can do it, or we can't. That's what I love. I don't want to f--- people around. Khoder is going to be a man about it. If someone rings, and they will if I am playing well, he will say we can either do it or we can't. Go ask the NZRU, we have always been straight up with them.''

So I did ask the NZRU chief executive, Steve Tew, how he found negotiating with Nasser. ''Everyone in here found Khoder very straight up, which was refreshing,'' Tew says unhesitatingly. ''Obviously, he has a different way of doing things. He has a very clear view of what he wants for his clients and he puts it on the table. We had very efficient negotiations; no mucking around. He's very easy to deal with: he tells you what he wants.''

Yes, says the New Zealand Sky TV chief executive John Fellet, who has agreed every broadcast deal with Nasser (whose fighters are unique in having had every one of their bouts on pay-per-view television) on a handshake. "It suits me fine, and it suits him fine. He has always kept every commitment.''

Tew says Williams wasn't the only beneficiary of the NZRU's ''flexibility'' which he says is forced upon the union by the ''structural disadvantage'' of having less money than everyone else. ''You know,'' he says, "we let the captain of the All Blacks fly a high-performance glider, which is not without risk either.''

But, says one sports official who enjoyed less successful dealings with Nasser, of course he'd say all that: "Tew has to say he is a genius, but he is the most annoying bugger to deal with. Being difficult does not equal genius.''

Yes, he's awkward. Williams's official return to league this season was delayed for five weeks because Nasser refused to sign up to the National Rugby League's mandatory agent accreditation scheme. The eventual compromise was a public claim that Williams had done his own deal. Nasser hates the NRL, calls them "a bunch of antiquated people who have no foresight''. Later, just in case I'd missed the antipathy, he rings to offer further, increasingly tart criticism, culminating in the suggestion one senior employee is there only as a social experiment to keep him off the streets.

The hatred stems from the NRL's unwillingness to be as "flexible'' as Tew and company. Nasser has a dream. That he could sign Williams to a league club who would offer time off to play for the All Blacks and box when he wished. Why not? ''I'd like to ask them, does any player make as much money as they were willing to give to the CEO of the NRL?'' That a banker, David Smith, got that job at a $1.2 million salary, riles him. ''Look at the wonderful state the world is in because of bankers.''

Nasser studied economics at the University of Wollongong. Nasser and his clients invest in property, and only property, but none of them has a mortgage. This is inspired by the Muslim faith that he was born with and Williams and Mundine adopted, but he's quick to point out that it was once a Christian tenet, too. "This interest and mortgage bullshit has only become a modern phenomenon,'' Nasser says. "I believe in the cash currency, not living in the future. You live with what you have now.''

He proffers an example: a sportsman early in his career who signs a five-year, $2 million deal. His manager suggests the sportsman borrow $2 million to buy property. But really, that $2 million income is but $1.2 million after tax and living expenses. And usually the player is under pressure to financially support family. He struggles even to meet interest payments, so when the five years is up he's left with nothing. This sounds less like allegory than a precise description of Williams's situation when he ran from the Bulldogs.

''Don't live in the future,'' Nasser counsels. ''Careers are quick and can end at any time. Sonny can cross the road and it's all finished. And if he's got a $1 million loan with the bank, do you think they are going to do me a favour?

''The worst things a manager can do for a sportsman is get him into debt and into a false sense of security. Without that, you know exactly what you've got, and what you are worth.''

When he arrived in France, Williams was almost immediately injured. Compartment syndrome is a deeply painful lower-leg injury which predominantly strikes Polynesian athletes. Williams found he could run for just 20 minutes. So he began taking painkillers just to train. He doubted he would ever succeed at rugby. But the anonymity of life in southern France gave him a new perspective. Having lived only in Sydney and Auckland and gone further afield only to Britain on a rugby league tour, he realised that the world extended beyond sport.

"I had to grow up,'' he says. "I had to fight some pretty tough demons.'' He says he found religion, found peace, found form, and found he was wanted. He could have stayed in France beyond his two years, and been well paid for it. "I could have had a pretty good life out there,'' he says. But this renaissance had given him the confidence to ignore any false sense of security, to take another punt, a huge salary cut, and come home to New Zealand. "It was a massive risk - but what if I accomplish something? It's massive rewards as well. And things rolled from there. You still have your ups and downs. But I was a lot mentally stronger.''

During the depression, however, he agreed to return to rugby league in 2013 with the Sydney Roosters on a handshake deal, seeing it as an escape route if rugby failed. When it didn't, he refused to back out. "A lot of people won't believe that,'' Williams says, "because of the way I left the Bulldogs. But there, I felt like I had a deal, and they [reneged]. I don't want to sound brash, but you can't sugarcoat it.'' The Bulldogs, he says, also shaped him. "But not in the sense people think. That it's about money. It's quite the opposite.'' But he says, somewhat sorrowfully, he has long since given up on trying to influence public opinion; Nasser, in contrast, is rather gleeful about his ongoing feud with sections of the Sydney media. "Have you ever seen a crew more vilified than ours?'' he chirps.

Combine the experience of good (France) and the bad (Sydney), and Williams believes it made him strong enough to keep choosing challenge over comfort - and to tell people what he's worth. "What I think about,'' he says, "is what is, A, going to get the best out of me, B, where I am going to be happy and, C, pretty much back to A, I know I've got to perform. So if you put yourself into situations where you have to perform, it is risky - you can sit back and bank on what you did last year, or you can take the risk and do something.''

Nasser is spruiking now. He's awkward, but he's also a charmer. Convivial. He wants this story to be about the boxing. Williams fights the veteran South African Francois Botha in Brisbane this Friday, his sixth pro fight, roughly Nasser's 50th show.

On fight nights, the famously scruffy Nasser - usually wearing sandals, sportsgear, a backpack, untrimmed beard - will shuffle around with a sheath of complimentaries, hiding beneath the brim of his baseball cap. "The Lebanese Robert De Niro,'' Fellet quips. Invited to watch a fight night close up, Fairfax Media's Greg Baum concluded it was a shambles, albeit a shambles that worked. Nasser liked the story.

Boxing began as fun for Williams, but now shapes as a possible career. He denies any long-term plan. Nasser has one, but won't say what it is. ''I would never want my son to be a boxer but if he was I wouldn't mind him being represented by Khoder,'' Fellet concludes. "He seems genuinely interested in the long-term career. Some of the things he does may seem schizophrenic - from rugby to league to boxing - but they have a masterplan.''

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NRL Season 2016

Round 1
Thu, 03 MarTimes shown AEDT
PAR vs BRI 20:05Pirtek
Fri, 04 MarTimes shown AEDT
MAN vs CBY 20:05BO
Sat, 05 MarTimes shown AEDT
CBR vs PEN 15:00GIO
WST vs NZW 17:30CSS
NQL vs CRO 19:301300
Sun, 06 MarTimes shown AEDT
SYD vs SOU 16:00AS
GCT vs NEW 18:30Cbus
Mon, 07 MarTimes shown AEDT
MEL vs STG 19:00AAMI
Fri, 09 SepTimes shown AEST
vs 00:00TBA
Sat, 10 SepTimes shown AEST
vs 00:00TBA
vs 00:00TBA
Sun, 11 SepTimes shown AEST
vs 00:00TBA
View All Fixtures
Round 2
Thu, 10 MarTimes shown AEDT
PEN vs CBY 20:05Pepp
Fri, 11 MarTimes shown AEDT
BRI vs NZW 20:05SUN
Sat, 12 MarTimes shown AEDT
CBR vs SYD 15:00GIO
SOU vs NEW 17:30ANZ
PAR vs NQL 19:30Pirtek
Sun, 13 MarTimes shown AEDT
CRO vs STG 16:00Shark Park
MEL vs GCT 18:30AAMI
Mon, 14 MarTimes shown AEDT
WST vs MAN 19:00VAS
Fri, 16 SepTimes shown AEST
vs 00:00TBA
Sat, 17 SepTimes shown AEST
vs 00:00TBA
View All Fixtures
Round 3
Thu, 17 MarTimes shown AEDT
NQL vs SYD 20:051300
Fri, 18 MarTimes shown AEDT
CBY vs PAR 20:05ANZ
Sat, 19 MarTimes shown AEDT
NEW vs CBR 17:30HS
PEN vs BRI 19:30Pepp
GCT vs WST 21:30Cbus
Sun, 20 MarTimes shown AEDT
NZW vs MEL 14:00MSS
STG vs SOU 16:00SCG
Mon, 21 MarTimes shown AEDT
MAN vs CRO 19:00BO
Fri, 23 SepTimes shown AEST
vs 00:00TBA
Sat, 24 SepTimes shown AEST
vs 00:00TBA
View All Fixtures
Round 4
Fri, 25 MarTimes shown AEDT
SOU vs CBY 16:00ANZ
BRI vs NQL 20:05SUN
Sat, 26 MarTimes shown AEDT
CBR vs GCT 17:30GIO
SYD vs MAN 19:30AS
Sun, 27 MarTimes shown AEDT
STG vs PEN 16:00WIN
Mon, 28 MarTimes shown AEDT
NZW vs NEW 14:00MSS
WST vs PAR 16:00ANZ
CRO vs MEL 19:00Shark Park
Sun, 02 OctTimes shown AEST
vs 00:00TBA
View All Fixtures
Round 5
Thu, 31 MarTimes shown AEDT
MAN vs SOU 20:05BO
Fri, 01 AprTimes shown AEDT
GCT vs BRI 20:05Cbus
Sat, 02 AprTimes shown AEDT
MEL vs NEW 15:00AAMI
WST vs CRO 17:30CSS
NQL vs STG 19:301300
Sun, 03 AprTimes shown AEST
SYD vs NZW 14:00AS
PAR vs PEN 16:00Pirtek
Mon, 04 AprTimes shown AEST
CBY vs CBR 19:00Belmore Sports Ground
View All Fixtures
Round 6
Thu, 07 AprTimes shown AEST
BRI vs STG 19:50SUN
Fri, 08 AprTimes shown AEST
SOU vs SYD 19:50ANZ
Sat, 09 AprTimes shown AEST
PAR vs CBR 15:00Pirtek
NZW vs MAN 17:30MSS
PEN vs NQL 19:30Pepp
Sun, 10 AprTimes shown AEST
CRO vs GCT 14:00Shark Park
NEW vs WST 16:00HS
Mon, 11 AprTimes shown AEST
MEL vs CBY 19:00AAMI
View All Fixtures
Round 7
Thu, 14 AprTimes shown AEST
MAN vs PAR 19:50BO
Fri, 15 AprTimes shown AEST
NQL vs SOU 19:501300
Sat, 16 AprTimes shown AEST
GCT vs STG 15:00Cbus
CBY vs NZW 17:30Westpac Stadium
BRI vs NEW 19:30SUN
Sun, 17 AprTimes shown AEST
CBR vs CRO 14:00GIO
WST vs MEL 16:00VAS
Mon, 18 AprTimes shown AEST
SYD vs PEN 19:00AS
View All Fixtures
Round 8
Fri, 22 AprTimes shown AEST
BRI vs SOU 19:50SUN
Sat, 23 AprTimes shown AEST
CBY vs GCT 15:00ANZ
CBR vs WST 17:30GIO
NQL vs PAR 19:301300
Sun, 24 AprTimes shown AEST
CRO vs PEN 16:00Shark Park
Mon, 25 AprTimes shown AEST
NEW vs MAN 14:00HS
STG vs SYD 16:00AS
MEL vs NZW 19:00AAMI
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Round 9
Thu, 28 AprTimes shown AEST
SOU vs WST 19:50ANZ
PAR vs CBY 19:50ANZ
Sat, 30 AprTimes shown AEST
PEN vs CBR 15:00Carrington Park
SYD vs NEW 17:30CCS
MAN vs NQL 19:30BO
Sun, 01 MayTimes shown AEST
NZW vs STG 12:00MSS
GCT vs MEL 14:00Cbus
CRO vs BRI 16:00Shark Park
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Round 10
Thu, 12 MayTimes shown AEST
STG vs CBR 19:50Jubilee Oval
Fri, 13 MayTimes shown AEST
PAR vs SOU 19:50Pirtek
Sat, 14 MayTimes shown AEST
PEN vs NZW 15:00AMI Stadium
MEL vs NQL 17:30SUN
MAN vs BRI 19:30SUN
Sun, 15 MayTimes shown AEST
NEW vs CRO 14:00HS
WST vs CBY 16:00ANZ
Mon, 16 MayTimes shown AEST
GCT vs SYD 19:00Cbus
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Round 11
Thu, 19 MayTimes shown AEST
SOU vs STG 19:50ANZ
Fri, 20 MayTimes shown AEST
NQL vs BRI 19:501300
Sat, 21 MayTimes shown AEST
WST vs NEW 15:00CSS
NZW vs CBR 17:30Yarrow Stadium
CRO vs MAN 19:30Shark Park
Sun, 22 MayTimes shown AEST
PEN vs GCT 14:00Pepp
CBY vs SYD 16:00ANZ
Mon, 23 MayTimes shown AEST
PAR vs MEL 19:00Pirtek
View All Fixtures
Round 12
Fri, 27 MayTimes shown AEST
BRI vs WST 19:50SUN
Sat, 28 MayTimes shown AEST
STG vs NQL 19:30WIN
Sun, 29 MayTimes shown AEST
CBR vs CBY 16:00GIO
Mon, 30 MayTimes shown AEST
NEW vs PAR 19:00HS
View All Fixtures
Round 13
Fri, 03 JunTimes shown AEST
CBR vs MAN 19:50GIO
Sat, 04 JunTimes shown AEST
NZW vs BRI 15:00MSS
NQL vs NEW 17:301300
MEL vs PEN 19:30AAMI
Sun, 05 JunTimes shown AEST
SYD vs WST 16:00AS
SOU vs GCT 18:30nib Stadium
Mon, 06 JunTimes shown AEST
CBY vs CRO 19:00ANZ
View All Fixtures
Round 14
Thu, 09 JunTimes shown AEST
BRI vs CBR 19:50SUN
Fri, 10 JunTimes shown AEST
WST vs SOU 19:50ANZ
Sat, 11 JunTimes shown AEST
NEW vs NZW 15:00HS
PAR vs GCT 17:30TIO
SYD vs MEL 19:30AS
Sun, 12 JunTimes shown AEST
MAN vs PEN 16:00BO
Mon, 13 JunTimes shown AEST
STG vs CBY 16:00ANZ
CRO vs NQL 19:00Shark Park
View All Fixtures
Round 15
Fri, 17 JunTimes shown AEST
SOU vs PAR 19:50ANZ
Sat, 18 JunTimes shown AEST
STG vs MEL 19:30WIN
Sun, 19 JunTimes shown AEST
NZW vs SYD 16:00MSS
Mon, 20 JunTimes shown AEST
GCT vs MAN 19:00Cbus
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Round 16
Fri, 24 JunTimes shown AEST
PEN vs SOU 19:50Pepp
Sat, 25 JunTimes shown AEST
NEW vs STG 15:00HS
CRO vs NZW 17:30Shark Park
CBY vs BRI 19:30ANZ
Sun, 26 JunTimes shown AEST
GCT vs CBR 14:00Cbus
MEL vs WST 16:00AAMI
Mon, 27 JunTimes shown AEST
NQL vs MAN 19:001300
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Round 17
Thu, 30 JunTimes shown AEST
SYD vs CBY 19:50AS
Fri, 01 JulTimes shown AEST
BRI vs MEL 19:50SUN
Sat, 02 JulTimes shown AEST
NZW vs GCT 15:00MSS
WST vs PEN 17:30ANZ
CRO vs PAR 19:30Shark Park
Sun, 03 JulTimes shown AEST
CBR vs NEW 14:00GIO
SOU vs NQL 16:00Barlow Park
Mon, 04 JulTimes shown AEST
MAN vs STG 19:00BO
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Round 18
Fri, 08 JulTimes shown AEST
PAR vs SYD 19:50Pirtek
Sat, 09 JulTimes shown AEST
CBY vs WST 19:30ANZ
Sun, 10 JulTimes shown AEST
PEN vs CRO 16:00Pepp
Mon, 11 JulTimes shown AEST
CBR vs NQL 19:00GIO
View All Fixtures
Round 19
Fri, 15 JulTimes shown AEST
STG vs GCT 19:50Jubilee Oval
Sat, 16 JulTimes shown AEST
MAN vs NZW 17:30nib Stadium
SOU vs BRI 19:30ANZ
Sun, 17 JulTimes shown AEST
NEW vs MEL 14:00HS
PEN vs PAR 16:00Pepp
Mon, 18 JulTimes shown AEST
SYD vs CRO 19:00AS
View All Fixtures
Round 20
Thu, 21 JulTimes shown AEST
NQL vs CBY 19:501300
Fri, 22 JulTimes shown AEST
BRI vs PEN 19:50SUN
Sat, 23 JulTimes shown AEST
CBR vs NZW 15:00GIO
GCT vs PAR 17:30Cbus
MEL vs SYD 19:30AAMI
Sun, 24 JulTimes shown AEST
CRO vs NEW 14:00Shark Park
STG vs WST 16:00ANZ
Mon, 25 JulTimes shown AEST
SOU vs MAN 19:00ANZ
View All Fixtures
Round 21
Wed, 27 JulTimes shown AEST
NZW vs PEN 22:00MSS
Thu, 28 JulTimes shown AEST
SYD vs BRI 00:00AS
CBY vs STG 00:00ANZ
GCT vs CRO 00:00Cbus
PAR vs WST 00:00ANZ
SOU vs CBR 00:00ANZ
MAN vs NEW 00:00BO
NQL vs MEL 00:001300
View All Fixtures
Round 22
Thu, 04 AugTimes shown AEST
STG vs BRI 00:00WIN
PAR vs MAN 00:00Pirtek
CRO vs CBR 00:00Shark Park
NEW vs CBY 00:00HS
MEL vs SOU 00:00AAMI
GCT vs NZW 00:00Cbus
WST vs NQL 00:00VAS
PEN vs SYD 00:00Pepp
View All Fixtures
Round 23
Wed, 10 AugTimes shown AEST
NZW vs SOU 22:00MSS
Thu, 11 AugTimes shown AEST
CBY vs MAN 00:00ANZ
BRI vs PAR 00:00SUN
WST vs GCT 00:00CSS
STG vs CRO 00:00Jubilee Oval
NEW vs PEN 00:00HS
SYD vs NQL 00:00AS
CBR vs MEL 00:00GIO
View All Fixtures
Round 24
Thu, 18 AugTimes shown AEST
BRI vs CBY 00:00SUN
SYD vs STG 00:00AS
NEW vs GCT 00:00HS
NQL vs NZW 00:001300
MAN vs MEL 00:00BO
CBR vs PAR 00:00GIO
PEN vs WST 00:00Pepp
SOU vs CRO 00:00ANZ
View All Fixtures
Round 25
Wed, 24 AugTimes shown AEST
NZW vs WST 22:00MSS
Thu, 25 AugTimes shown AEST
CBY vs NQL 00:00Belmore Sports Ground
MEL vs BRI 00:00AAMI
GCT vs PEN 00:00Cbus
MAN vs CBR 00:00BO
CRO vs SYD 00:00Shark Park
NEW vs SOU 00:00HS
PAR vs STG 00:00Pirtek
View All Fixtures
Round 26
Wed, 31 AugTimes shown AEST
NZW vs PAR 22:00MSS
Thu, 01 SepTimes shown AEST
BRI vs SYD 00:00SUN
CBY vs SOU 00:00ANZ
STG vs NEW 00:00Jubilee Oval
NQL vs GCT 00:001300
MEL vs CRO 00:00AAMI
WST vs CBR 00:00VAS
PEN vs MAN 00:00Pepp
View All Fixtures

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