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Know your rugby protective gear

Feb/ Mar 2009

Scientists agree:

Protective gear DO help prevent rugby injuries

Mouthguards, headguards and shoulder pads form an integral part of a player’s armour against rugby injuries say scientists — and should form part of any programme aimed at reducing injuries in this bruising game, reports FANIE HEYNS

The Currie Cup final of 2008 was an unforgettable experience for thousands of Sharks-supporters, as the team won the coveted trophy in the traditional showpiece of South African rugby against the side that “robbed” them of Super 14-glory through a remarkable Bryan Habana-try in 2007, the Bulls.

Ruan Pienaar’s short burst and elusive run took him to the try-line and past the desperate defensive efforts by Fourie du Preez and Pierre Spies. And Frans Steyn put the spectacular finishing touches to a move in which Stefan Terblanche and Frederic Michalak featured prominently with dazzling runs and well-timed passes.

The Sharks prevailed in a bruising encounter, and when the dust settled in the Absa Stadium, 30 men, and the benches, were left standing in spite of the physical and bone-crunching nature of this match.

A casual observer, ET just visiting the planet and the KwaZulu-Natal representative of Arrive Alive would have noted that there was no serious injuries in vulnerable areas like the shoulders, head and specifically the mouth, in spite of some full frontal assaults and head on collisions.

Discovery SharkSmart, the Sharks guide to playing rugby through the prevention of injuries and wiser practice and play, would offer such observers a short, and a comprehensive answer, to the reasons why the players survived unscathed.

As part of a comprehensive 10-point plan, Discovery Sharksmart outline the importance of protecting your assets through the correct use of mouthguards, padded equipment and headgear.

Mouthguards help to reduce injuries to the teeth, lips, mouth and tongue, and help to reduce jaw fractures. There is no evidence they decrease the risk of concussion. Ensure your players wear mouthguards in activities involving collision or body contact, including during training, states Discovery SharkSmart.

Coaches and management are advised to encourage their players to use mouthguards.

Research evidence shows that many rugby injuries are minor, like bruises, bumps, cuts and lacerations. Padded equipment such as shoulder and breast pads can help reduced the number of cuts and lacerations players sustain.

Padded equipment does not appear to protect players against severe injuries, and is not appropriate for allowing injured players to resume participation before they are fully recovered, adds Discovery SharkSmart.

SharkSmart says headgear must be fitted properly and securely to prevent serious cuts to the scalp and ears. They add a cautionary note: There is no evidence that headgear protects against concussion.

The Superman-syndrome

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and use Clint Readhead, medical manager of South African rugby, to make some probing comments: “If two sides take the field, fit and healthy, using their protective wear, the mouth guards and shoulder pads, and they play the game in good spirit and within the rules, the chances of serious injuries might be minimal.

“But one must understand that the use of protective wear does not secure you protection against concussion. The one worry is that some young upstart might use the gear and get a Superman syndrome or feel that he is untouchable and indestructible, and can pretty much do what he likes.”

He adds that the use of protective equipment may give players a false sense of security that they will not get injured, thus changing the way in which they perceive and play the game.

Readhead adds that this is why the use of protective wear, mouth guards and shoulder pads are only part of the deal to stay injury-free. You still need to be fit, you must play in a position that fits your strength and size, adhere to the correct code of conduct, play within the rules of the game.

Rules of engagement

The so-called rules of engagement are important. The rules are designed to offer the players maximum protection. If these rules are not adhered to the players will be placed at risk.

Coaching at the junior levels is extremely important as this is where the players will be introduced to the correct techniques, For example, the front row forward will be taught the correct body position, how to tackle correctly. It also becomes very important for coaches to be accredited so that the correct techniques are taught to the kids.

“In short, protective gear must be used within the right parameters, which is something that is promoted and advocated by SharkSmart,” adds Readhead.

SharkSmart’s ten-point plan

Protective equipment is part of a well-researched and a comprehensive ten-point plan outlined by Discovery SharkSmart. Some of the other points include injury management, fair play, physical conditioning and technique.

How many coaches have lost key players to injury right at the beginning of the season... and were left to rue what might have been? Research by SANZAR unions show that players are at most risk of injury during the early part of the season — the trial games and the first few competition games in particular, states Discovery SharkSmart on their website,

The pre-season, therefore, is the vital time to future-proof bodies against the impacts they’ll take.

Readhead says the Sharks are one of the leading provinces in taking the initiative to educate juniors by using the SharkSmart program. They have produced a SharkSmart DVD that is used extensively by schools, a DVD that has created heightened safety awareness within rugby.

Every province in South Africa provide some form of rugby education to their schools, but the Sharks went one step further in formalizing a programme. They have taken it to the next level, he believes.

SharkSmart’s travelling salesmen

Two of the reasons for the effectiveness of the Discovery SharkSmart program in spreading the gospel of the use of protective wear and gear, are the use of sport scientists in giving professional input on different aspects of a safer rugby environment and structure, as well as employing current Sharks-players and Springboks in speaking to clubs and schools on the SharkSmart-program.

Well-known sport scientists like Prof. Tim Noakes is often used to write on different subjects like nutrition, self-belief and fitness.

Prominent players like John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis, Pienaar and Terblanche speak at schools and clubs where they endorse and promote the Discovery SharkSmart programme and emphasize the importance of using the protective wear and the ten-point plan to prevent injuries and enjoy the game of rugby.

October 2006

‘IRB approved’ will be enforced

The specifics relating to a player’ dress code and protective wear is governed under Regulation 12 of the IRB Regulation to the Game, according to which players are only allowed to wear IRB approved dress and protective wear when playing matches at any level.

"The SA Rugby Union, as a member of the IRB, must ensure that this regulation is strictly adhered to," SARU said in a statement. "This means that all schools, clubs, provincial and international matches organised under the auspices of SARU, must comply in full to Regulation 12."

Any player who does not comply with the Regulation 12 can be charged before a SARU Judicial Committee.

"Retailers are requested to only stock items with an official IRB approved logo attached thereto," says Christo Ferreira.

Regulation 12 stipulates in detail regarding Additional Clothing, Special Additional Items for Women, Studs and Banned Items of Clothing.

Below is an abbreviated list of some IRB approved headgear and shoulder pads available in SA. For a full list, go to the IRB website,, then click on the menu for Laws and Regulations and then select Approved Equipment.

Some IRB Approved products
Headgear Brand Headgear Model
Azzuri Azzuri headgear
Barbarian Rugby Wear Barbarian headwear
Canterbury (by Body Armour) 20/20 Honeycomb; 10/10 Armourlite; Raptor; 30/30 Ventilator; Cotton Oxford 1; Armourlite ll Headgear; Club 1030
Gilbert Braincell; Composite; Vengeance ll; Dimension Headguard; VX5 Headguard; Triflex Headguard; Vengeance V3 Headguard; Xact Headguard
Kooga Ram Headgear;; KV2 Headgear; Victor Headgear
Longway Enterprise Puma Rugby Helmet; Mizuno Headgear; adidas Headgear; adidas 04 Headgear; adidas 05 Headgear; Rugby Helmet
Madison Elite Rugby Head Guard; Coolmax
Mitre Head Gear
Optimum Hedweb-Pro; Hedweb Junior (Boys); Hedweb-Classic; Extreme Headgear; Kipsta R500 Casque; Kipsta R300 Headgear; Matrix; Pro-Touch Headgear
Rhino Rugby Rhino Skin Headguard
Rugbytech Style 1; Style 2 - Mizuno and Novelastic; Style 3 - adidas
Stirling Moulded Composites Webb Ellis Airflex Cell Headgear
Webb Ellis Limited SE2
Shoulder Pad Brand Shoulder Pad Model
Barbarian Protective Shoulder Vest
Body Armour for Canterbury FlexiTop - Style No 2042; FlexiTop Plus - Style No 2047
Canterbury Tech Shoulder Vest
Canterbury (by Body Armour) Honeycomb Tech Shoulder Vest (V-Neck); Honeycomb Tech Shoulder Vest (crew Neck); Chest Protection Vest (Crew Neck); Club Vest - Style: 1038
Comax Sporting Goods Puma Shoulder Padding
Gilbert AC and Shoulder Padding; Tanktop; Trilite; Tri-Flex; Tri-Lite Tank Top; Triflex Charger (ll) Shoulder Garment; Tri-Flex Super-Lite; Triflex Charger Shoulder Garments; Charger Xact; Triflex Pro; Quest; Trilite Xtra; VX5 Headguard
Indtex Carisbrook, Mizuno
KooGa Centurian; Centurian ll; impact Vest ll; Samurai; Samurai ll; Warrior; Zulu Shoulder Padding; Zulu ll; Impact Vest; Pro Pad; Pro Plus; Pro Extra
Longway Enterprise Puma Big Cat; Mizuno Shoulder Padding; RB Protect Top; Rugby Shirt; Rugby Vest
Madison Magic; Second Phase
Mitre Sports Destroyer; Destroyer ll
Optimum Extreme; Extreme 10 Shoulder Padding; Shok Top; Shok Top Pro; Matrix; Faz Pads; Kipsta R300 Shoulder Padding; Extreme Shoulder Padding; Kipsta R500 9 Protections; Pro Touch Shoulder Garment; Thinskin Shok Top
Rhino Rugby Ltd Rhino Skin Shoulder Pads
Rugbytech Adult Short Vest; Rugbyech Cool Mesh; Novelastic Pro; Junior; Rugbytech Chessi Vest; adidas Short Vest; Novelastic Short Vest; Mizuno Short Vest; Matador Shoulder Garment
Stirling Moulded Composites Webb Ellis Airflex Shoulder Padding; Webb Ellis Airflex Pro Shoulder Padding
Terminator Clothing Terminator Tops
Webb Ellis Limited Impax Pro; Resilio

February 2007

Check for the stamp of approval!

This season SARU plans to enforce the rule that only headgear and shoulder pads with the IRB Approved label may be worn in matches at all levels. They therefore ask retailers not to stock or sell protective garments without the IRB label. FANIE HEYNS examines the implications of this ruling for retailers, rugby brands and players or five years, apathy ruled. Then the International Rugby Board (IRB), disgruntled by reports in the British media that the Springboks playing against England at Twickenham looked like American Gridiron stars with their heavily-padded garments, sent a special envoy to SA

The envoy, David Carigy, warned against the tendency by some suppliers and retailers to manufacture, stock and sell headgear and shoulder pads that were not IRB-approved. There were also garments sold with no IRB-approved-labels.

According to Christo Ferreira, manager of legal affairs of the South African Rugby Union, Carigy visited distributors and retailers, investigated their IRB-compliancy and even photographed some faulty garments.

He expressed the concern of the IRB that some distributors and retailers sold headgear and shoulder pads that were not tested and approved by the IRB, nor displayed the IRB-approved-logo.

"The IRB was adamant that the distributors had to get in line. Initially, some big name-suppliers dug in their heels against the measure that all the garments had to be IRB-approved and –labeled.

"I pleaded with the IRB for a gradual phasing out of the old garments before introducing the new ruling. The international body, though, was unmoved and said the whole SA rugby community had to abide by Regulation 12," said Ferreira.

SARU, as a member of the IRB, must ensure that this regulation is strictly adhered to. This means that all schools, clubs, provincial and international matches organized under the auspices of SARU, must comply in full to Regulation 12.

Any player who does not comply with the Regulation 12 can be charged before a SARU Judicial Committee. "Retailers are requested to only stock items with an official IRB approved logo attached thereto," adds Ferreira.

Canterbury’s protective wear supply was not affected in any way by the ruling about IRB approved labels on headgear and shoulder pads, says Paul Zacks, MD of Canterbury SA. "We have an international team of designers and a Canterbury global supplier/manufacturer who are constantly working with the IRB to ensure timeous compliance and delivery."

Canterbury International’s headgear and shoulder pads have always been IRB-approved and labeled, and therefore the recent rulings have not affected sales in the least, said Zacks.

However with regards to Canterbury SAs non-IRB approved shoulder vest that the company marketed and sold in the past as a training product (that is not intended for use on match day) year-on-year-sales for the first quarter have dropped by 96 %. The loss of sales on this product, however, has been more than compensated for by the company’s introduction of its new IRB approved entry price point Club range.

The process of getting a specific brand of product tested and approved, takes anything between 4 to 8 weeks once the garments have been submitted to the IRB.

The label is purchased from the IRB and attached by the manufacturer.

Some SA suppliers used the argument in the past that the shoulder vests were IRB compliant and therefore did not need to be IRB approved. The IRB, though, is unmoved on the issue that every protective garment has to have the IRB Approved label attached.

Based on average annual sales, it will cost about R64 per vest to get the product IRB approved and labeled. Each label costs $1.10.

The two biggest suppliers of protective gear in SA sell more than 20 000 protective garments per year — and there are several other suppliers. Gilbert sells between 6 000 – 8 000 units of shoulder pads and about 1 500 headgears per year. This year, Canterbury already have sales orders for more than 5 200 units of headgear and for more than 7 000 shoulder pads.

"The IRB, via their meetings twice a year with rugby manufacturers, have communicated the reasons behind their policies and processes and clarified any areas of confusion. Canterbury, as a leading rugby brand, respect these rules and are happy to comply with them," said Zacks.

Du Toit Botes, GM of James Gilbert SA, says suppliers would pay R45 000 to get the full size range approved from XS – 3XL because each size must be approved.

When Carigy visited South Africa, Botes and Ferreira had a meeting with him. Carigy warned that the SA protective gear market was spiraling out of control.

According to Botes, Gilbert vowed after that meeting to set the tone and to abide by the IRB-regulations. One has to play by the rules on the field when participating in the Rugby World Cup, so the same applies to the garments of which the IRB is the official guardian, he says.

"We are the official supplier of balls and equipment to SA rugby and we endeavour to be an agent of positive change in SA. We contacted Sportsman’s Warehouse and together we decided to start a marketing initiative aimed at changing the mind-set of the consumer. Our purpose was to explain to the consumer why we would only supply IRB-approved products," says Botes.

Tony Barker, director of Optimum, says Christo Ferreira told him the IRB put a lot of pressure on SA to get into line.

In the rest of the world, retailers would not touch an item of clothing if there were no IRB-label on it. In SA, there was a tendency of ignoring, or not sufficiently respecting, the IRB-regulation that protective gear had to be tested, approved and appropriately labeled.

"When I came on board with Optimum SA in 2004, I said we had a problem: We (Optimum) were playing by the rules, but not the other guys."

When Carigy visited SA, some of the suppliers did not want to toe the line, until the IRB-envoy warned them that when new sponsorships were negotiated, the IRB would not utilize their company.

That threat forced the big boys to come to the party.

What worries Barker, is that the playing field may not be level for all the suppliers. Some unscrupulous agents might hoodwink retailers into believing they are stocking legal garments, but what happens to parents when they buy protective gear for their children, just to learn later that legally they are not allowed to play in a match under Saru’s auspices.

"Why should Gilbert, Canterbury and Optimum supply IRB-approved protective gear, and one or two others not?" asks Barker.

According to a retailer who sells a lot of rugby gear, but does not want to be named, some SA players, amongst them Springboks, have for some time been playing in protective garments that were not IRB-approved or IRB-labelled. The source said the IRB-regulation stipulates that the thickness of the foam on the shoulder must not exceed 10 mm and the thickness of the foam on the sternum must not be thicker than 5 mm. Some of those garments were 10 mm on the shoulder and on the sternum.

"There have been a helluva lot of illegal models on the SA market for more than 5 years," says the source.

"The IRB feared that if you had too much protection, like 10 mm or more, you could argue that you were bullet-proof, and the game was in danger of becoming too robust.

"I still believe that the headgear cannot prevent concussion, but is anti-abrasive and could prevent serious cuts when somebody’s studs connect with your head," he adds.

Martin Ferreira of Sportoria, a specialist-retailer of rugby stock in Pretoria, says the IRB-regulation regarding protective wear has little affect on the supply and sales of rugby protective wear.

"There is no monitoring system in place to check whether the regulations regarding head gear and shoulder pads are being implemented," he says. "Furthermore, the end users of these products are largely uneducated. You have a system in place that is not enforced."

Ferreira believes that the largest volumes of protective wear – headgear and shoulder pads – currently sold in SA are not IRB-approved.

The IRB-regulations regarding the protective wear and the necessity of labels are also not widely available in South Africa, according to the Pretoria-based retailer.

SA Rugby never condoned or approved protective gear that was not IRB-approved, says Christo Ferreira. "It could be that we did not apply the law strictly in the past," he concedes. "We have now asked the retailers and the referees to ensure that players adhere to the regulation."

At provincial and Super 14-level, SA rugby has asked André Watson, the director of refereeing affairs in South Africa, and the referees under his authority, to police the headgear and shoulder pads to ensure that all items worn are IRB-approved.

It means that if players do not wear the required garments, they could be prohibited from taking the field.

Schools and clubs have the responsibility to make their players aware that they may only wear the IRB-approved garments. The referees must similarly ensure that only garments with IRB-labels are used.

Barker says SA rugby has a commitment to the public and suppliers of the garment to make sure that unscrupulous companies don’t take retailers and the public for a ride.

SA rugby must also engage with the media in a marketing drive to spread the message that IRB-approval and IRB-labels are necessities.

By putting posters in change rooms, by running articles in rugby-specific magazines and by using the sporting channels on TV to impress upon the suppliers, retailers and rugby players the need to wear the labeled garments, they would spread the message and convince the major players that the IRB-approval is the only way to go.

Halfhearted policing by SA Rugby might result in another IRB-visit to South Africa, and another plea for South African conformity to Regulation 12, said Barker.

Whether Barker and Ferreira’s sentiments are shared by all, is not sure. Maybe the real question for a few is not, as Shakespeare once said: To be (IRB-approved and –labelled) or not to be (IRB-labelled), but rather: how can we observe the eleventh commandment: thou shall not be caught.

February 2008

Policing protective

During the 2007 Rugby World Cup players had to remove protective gear without the IRB Approved logo. Is this rule applied as strictly at local school and club level? FANIE HEYNS investigated

The International Rugby Board (IRB) is very serious about policing the regulations to ensure that shoulder pads, headgear and other protective garment meet their requirements and that all products sold are accompanied by the IRB Approved logo, declares their head of communications, Greg Thomas.

But strong language and good intentions do not guarantee excellent results.

Somebody must have distorted the text messages from the IRB via the South African Rugby Union (SARU) to the retailers.

There are some ominous signs of frustrations and apparent ignorance within the industry that provide IRB-approved clothing to players at school, club, provincial and even Super 14-level.

Despite warnings from SARU and an article in Sports Trader (February 2007) that retailers may only sell rugby protective gear and garments with the IRB Approved label, many still believe that this only applies to games played at national or international level.

The confusion may stem from other sporting codes where international federation approval is only required for international matches. FIFA, for example, have several tiers of approval: FIFA Inspected, FIFA Approved etc. and does not require that equipment used at club and school level has their stamp of approval.

There is no such leeway with sale of rugby protective garments.

But, because nobody is aware of a local player being penalised for not wearing IRB Approved protective gear, the belief exists that it does not really matter.

"The IRB is continuing to look at ways of improving the policing of Law4/Regulation 12 and ensuring that its unions take a pro-active role (in applying the regulation). This is a matter which is taken very seriously by the IRB," says Thomas.

Internationally, IRB approval on protective gear is being taken very seriously.

Prior to the Rugby World Cup in 2007, all teams were reminded of their obligation and duty to comply with law 4/regulation 12 in relation to player dress.

The IRB law 4/regulation 12 governs what players may wear on the field. This is referred to as Player’s Dress and covers footwear, clothing and padded clothing, including headgear.

Regarding the 2007 Rugby World Cup, there was random checking of protective wear at the World Cup and at the international games approximately one year leading up to the world event, says Gary Blakey, marketing manager of Rugbytech.

He says the policing and the enforcement was so comprehensive that a few international players wearing non-conforming garments in fact removed them before the game started as they did not want to receive penalties and fines going forward.

Match officials, and specifically touch judges, were tasked with policing the player dress regulation on the ground.

All teams were checked prior to kick-off, according to Thomas. When players were found to be wearing non-compliant dress, the match officials ensured that the necessary changes were made prior to kick-off. This happened on several occasions.

"It is a question of enforcing a minimum standard on a global basis on equipment that is permitted in the game. Unapproved equipment — or equipment that does not fall within the parameters of the laws/regulations permitted for rugby matches — and players who attempt to wear such equipment, run the risk of being ordered from the field or being prevented from stepping out in the first place," says Thomas.

But, how effectively is the IRB — and in particular SARU — policing the application of their rules regarding protective gear at a local level?

SARU has asked the provinces to be the watch dog at club, school and provincial level and ultimately, the referees are tasked with checking the protective gear of the players.

"As far as we know, these regulations have not been enforced at a provincial, club or even schools level," says Blakey.

But, according to Analize Pedregal, marketing manager of Canterbury, at school level parents and children have gained a heightened awareness of the importance of the IRB Approved logo the past four years.

"This is because the players and their parents have been informed at several rugby clinics about the necessity of IRB-logos on protective gear — for example, all the federations have conducted clinics. That awareness campaign has worked tremendously well the past four years," she added.

She believes that all the manufacturers apply the IRB-regulations regarding their clothing and protective gear and that they adhere to it strictly.

The retailers and manufacturers get a list of specifications. And if manufacturers and retailers want to take chances, they are checked by the parents of players, she believes.

Retail obligations

The IRB regulations concerning approved protective wear has not affected the retail trade at all because the policing thereof is not done by the retailers or by the rugby officials, says Blakey.

"It is unfortunate, as many customers are aware of the regulations and of course stock only products that do conform to standards. Others do not. To date, as far as we know, no one has been caught out.

"The retailers have an obligation to the buying public to make them aware of the rules — and this is even more so at the entry level consumer," he added.

If a referee refuses a player the right to wear a non-IRB-approved product and the shop-owner who sold it to him is held accountable, that trader would soon learn that he should only buy IRB-approved products, adds Tony Barker of Optimum SA.

Since it is an IRB ruling that all countries should abide by a standardisation of rugby protective gear, why should SA bend the rules? he asks.

"It is ethically right that SA should abide by the rules," says Barker. "What happens if there is an injury to a player wearing a non IRB approved product? Who is responsible, the manufacturer or the seller?"

Barker says the top four manufacturers of protective gear — Optimum, Rugbytech, Gilbert and Canterbury — have all agreed to conform with the rule and apply for IRB labels on all their protective gear and rugby clothing ranges.

Yet, there are still local companies selling non-IRB-approved products at more or less similar prices as the top four.

"A lot of people are still laughing at the IRB-regulations regarding protective gear and the requirement that the clothing should be accompanied by an IRB-logo.

"Many retailers are still saying that they don’t really care about the IRB logo, as long as they can save a few bucks by stocking cheaper non-compliant products," he says.

Despite SARU and IRB assurances that they communicated the ruling to everybody concerned, there still seem to be a lot of confusion about the legal requirements.

Even some suppliers are unaware that only IRB-approved protective gear may be sold by retailers, irrespective of the level or age group of the player.

According to Brendon Geary of Puma there is also quite a considerable cost involved in getting the approved labels.

Manufacturer frustrations

A manufacturer has to buy an IRB Approved label from the IRB for every single item of protective gear sold. They may not make and apply their own approved labels. That immediately raises the price per item.

Apart from that, products may only be tested for approval in IRB-designated international test centres.

Local manufacturer Jaco Kirsten, owner of Orbit Sport in Port Elizabeth, says he is frustrated by the lack of cooperation that he received from the IRB. He has been trying to establish a local facility to test his gear and to get them IRB approved, but when he contacted the IRB and the SA Rugby Union about it, they did not even bother to reply.

He has to pay a testing facility in France hundreds of thousands of rand simply because a local testing facility is not available. The process of testing an IRB Approved range of shoulder pads and headgear could cost in the region of R140 000.

He says the law and regulations regarding IRB-approved dress code and protective gear should be published and sent to all manufacturers, not only the big international brands. The lack of information is a source of frustration for him.

He says the lack of cooperation by the IRB and the SA Rugby Union is confusing. "Who answers you when you have pressing questions? It seems as if the people to whom I have sent Emails, have all been on extended leave."

Thomas says that the IRB does audit manufacturers’ products within the IRB Approved scheme to ensure compliance with IRB regulations.

Only those padded equipment products that meet the standards in regulation 12 are entitled to use the IRB mark of approval. In the past, product had been recalled by manufacturers when it had been found not to comply with the IRB regulations.

Meetings are held twice annually with manufacturers dealing with players’ dress matters, as well as individual meetings where appropriate. The IRB has worked closely with unions on this matter, including SARU, says Thomas. Occasionally SARU will send a threatening letter to the manufacturers.

All the manufacturers have a manual with technical specifications guiding them on what is IRB Approved and what not.

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