Thursday, 15 August 2013

NOW TV box: a mini-review

I picked up a Now TV box the other day. At a tenner including postage, they're practically giving them away. Some first impressions:

Firstly, given the price, there's obviously a catch, which in this case is "Sky by stealth". We've never had any sort of Sky product, so now they have our contact details plus viewing habits via the box, which is presumably worth the cost of subsidising the box alone. It's also very firmly squared at tempting viewers into premium Sky packages (sport and movies).

But the fact there was a catch was obvious, and it doesn't detract from the product itself. So how does it hold up?

The box itself is small, unobtrusive and simple to set up. Getting started out-of-the-box iss a matter of minutes. Yes, you'll need to have wifi and a HDMI port in your TV, but most people will have those these days. The only slightly finicky thing about setup is that you need to have a "NOW TV account" which is different from the details you give Sky when ordering the box itself. I may be wrong, but it seems to create an account you either need to order a Sky Sports Day Pass (£10) or sign up for a month's free trial of Sky Movies. I opted for the latter and got as far as this screen:

Shurely shome mishtake? Impressively quick customer service from @NOWTV replied to my cynical tweet and assured me that the trial would indeed be free, but even so I see no reason to provide my credit card details for a free service (isn't that what porn websites do?). Hint: if you get as far as this screen, you'll already have a username and password on the site, so you can abort your oder at this point and still have enough details to get the box started.

Functionality itself is pretty limited but has one major strength, namely the ability to get iPlayer onto a non-smart TV. This in itself is the main benefit and makes it worth the price. There's also Channel 5 on demand; apparently ITV and Channel 4 are in the pipeline, which would be nice.

There are other apps - most of which are pretty pointless, although being able to watch TED talks on TV is quite cool. In addition, for non-smart TV owners like me, there's no obvious way to download films to a TV, so the fact that Sky have sneaked in there with a cheap box means that if I want to download a film, I may just go with Sky's NOW TV service, purely for convenience.

Vimeo is included but YouTube is not, which is a major drawback. I'll also have to wait for Google to release their Chromecast before I'll be able to watch BT Sport on the TV rather than the laptop, which is irritating. So for the moment I'm thinking of it as an iPlayer-only device.

However, the ability to buy a Sky Sports day pass is a major attraction for me. Priced at a tenner, it's teasingly affordable compared to the £40-odd I'd need to shell out for a full-blown subscription. Previously, the day passes were only available via my PC, so I may well pay for the occasional day watching the Ashes, Ryder Cup, Heineken Cup or similar. So Sky are likely to take some of my money which they otherwise wouldn't have had. It's clever marketing, in a way that both Sky and the customer are winners in their own way.

Overall: don't be fooled into thinking this is some sort of all-singing all-dancing device; it's just a way to get iPlayer onto your TV if you can't do it already. But for that alone, the giveaway price is worth it, and having the technology in place to allow you to get bite-sized versions of Sky premium products (ie sports and movies), combined with the simplicity of the product itself, make it a thumbs up from me.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Bikepacking the South Downs Way

Having done plenty of wekend walking trips - some with a tent, some with a bivvy - and the occasional mountain biking day out, the natural progression seemed to be to combine the two. I set out with my mate Duncan in an attempt at the South Downs Way: 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne, almost entirely off-road, with a tarp and a bivvy bag.

It was a mixed weekend which ultimately ended in failure – for several reasons but, sadly, the biggest one being my own lack of fitness.

We were slightly later out of London than expected, meaning that we didn’t hit Winchester station until 10pm. A seriously terrible kebab later, we set out and peeled off into some woods a few miles (less than 5) outside of the town.

My mate had opted for his 1-man tent rather than a bivvy and pitched it in no time, settling in for his evening’s entertainment as I wrestled with the tarp. Progress was VERY slow as I attempted to work out, empirically, the best way to get the damn thing up. The rain started just as we camped and soon was chucking down. Trying to pitch in a nettlebed isn’t much fun but in the end – after an ordeal – I got up a lean-to by pegging in the long side to the ground, and using a wheel on one short side and the rest of the bike saddle-up at the other end. The rain hammered down and I lay awake for a while, partly ecstatic at the sound of raindrops on canvas – is there any sound that makes you feel triumphant at having braved the outdoors? – partly in trepidation for the whole thing collapsing on my face. It was well past midnight before I drifted off to sleep.

In the event, I had one of the best nights’ sleep I’ve had in the outdoors for a while. I normally have problems breathing but this time I had a pretty sound rest. However, I woke at 6:30 with dappled sunlight on my face and a stunning dawn chorus in full swing. Since Radio 4’s “Tweet of the Day” started airing at 5:58 each morning I’ve suddenly been having a micro-craze for birds although aside from a few obvious ones I can barely identify any. This chorus was magnificent and it’s one of those moments where you feel a lot of emotions but high among them is the feeling that very, very few people ever get to share moments like this...even though they’re free. Waking up in the woods with the sun on your face and the birds singing? That’s one to add to anyone’s bucket list as far as I’m concerned.

My riding buddy didn’t emerge for another two hours – I had mixed feelings about whether to wake him or just enjoy some breakfast at my own pace and the birdsong. In the end, despite my early waking, we didn’t make a move until 10am which among other things was part of our downfall.

There was the ominous sound of what we assumed was a farmer’s tractor close by and we expected to have to wield some uncomfortable questions. As it turned out it was the sound of a tank! We were camping close by to some sort of red letter day centre and there were tanks and quad bikes all over the place.

Not having any specialist bikepacking gear, I was resigned to hauling most of the weight on my back. I used a couple of bottle cages for water, an 8 litre dry bag on the bars and a small 2 litre back strapped inelegantly to the saddle rails. My 32 litre rucksack still weighed nearly 7kg though – far from ideal.

As for the SDW itself, there isn’t a great deal to tell. It’s typical southern English countryside – pleasant but unspectacular and there isn’t much by way of highlights. We set ourselves a target of about 70 miles on the Saturday – ambitious, but would leave a comfortable Sunday and even a pub lunch. But we soon found out that it wasn’t as easy as all that.

Progress was slow. I was constantly behind and really puffing on the hills. There’s no sophisticated reason for this – my fitness just isn’t up to scratch. Rests became longer and ever more frequent. Climbs took longer. The GPS grimly infomed us our moving average wasn't much more than 6mph. There were a lot of miles still to be covered.

We lunched at Queen Elizabeth Country Park. We gave rather short shrift to a woman who waited until we'd unpacked everything and got the stove running before venturing to remark that she had booked the area and was waiting for her friends. Lunch wasn't one of our proudest moments - a particularly disgusting tinned meatball mixture. A lot of rice was needed to disguise the taste.

The afternoon was a long slog. I stacked it on a fast descent - I was being forced to the left of the track by a nasty rut nearly a foot deep. Soon my ribbon of track started to disappear into the bushes. Knowing that my options were to crash into the bushes or have a go at the rut, I made an effort at taking on the rut but went flying over the handlebars, hitting my head pretty hard. No permanent damage to either rider or bike fortunately! I was rather more circumspect on subsequent descents but about 20 minutes later I found myself losing control at the bottom of another fast one. With no run-off the natural path went straight into a deep hollow full of water. Seeing soft grass behind and knowing another stack was inevitable I relaxed and let myself go. I charged straight into the hollow which had a steep rise the other side, found myself about 2 feet airborne and somehow managed to make a perfect landing as if nothing had happened - albeit rather shaken.

By this point the remote lockout on my fork had broken, meaning that smoother climbs were even harder work. Duncan meanwhile was struggling with tyre pressures and balance issues with all the weight behind the saddle. Other than that we plodded on. But my body was screaming.

Each climb a struggle. It's a mental thing as much as physical - I give in too easily, firstly by giving in to the temptation to move to the small chain ring, then by looking up and instantly giving in. Duncan stolidly pulling up each hill and waiting at the top. He did his best to make excuses for me, kindly and untruthfully blaming everything from my remote lockout to the weight on my back. But my climbing was getting worse. Gasping, screaming, mutters of "get a fucking grip Eoghan", tears, inadequacy, a sudden burst of concentration, look down, weight forward, smooth legs - don't create too much torque! - screaming again, move up the gears, the small chain ring, moving up into bottom gear, a sudden thought that walking would be no slower, a fading attempt to banish such thoughts, irregular breathing, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, I can't do this, I can't do this, my fitness is terrible, we're falling behind and it's all my fault, why is everything always my bloody fault, more inadequacy, more tears, shameful, is there ever anything I'm good at, failure, why does it always rain on me, self-pity, another look up to face the fact I've made almost no progress, a sudden despondent slump and my foot touches the ground. Shit. Shit, shit, SHIT. A vain attempt to get started again - in bottom gear, on a steep gravelly hill? No chance - and it's hike-a-bike to the top, a muttered apology but I can't look him in the eye.

Rinse and repeat. As my exhaustion grows I start to realise that I'm losing concentration on the descents. This is becoming dangerous.

A while later in a fit of desperation I extract an old packet of Kendal mint cake and devour half of it, body gasping for sugar and oxygen. I'd never tried KMC before and it's actually not half bad. It works wonders for my energy levels and I make efforts to increase my sugar levels with fig rolls and chocolate at every opportunity.

The light starts to fade - we've made pitiful progress and it becomes apparent that we're not going to manage this in two days, not 70 miles on the first day anyhow. The view down to Amberley and the River Arun is delightful but there wasn't time to enjoy it, just push on.

The post-meltdown Kendal mint cake and regular refuellings help me but the effects are temporary and not long after crossing the A24 I collapse one more time, haul the bike up to the top and declare with what breath I have left "I'm spent. I can't manage any more climbs like that tonight." Duncan generously counters "me too" but his words ring hollow. Fortunately the light had gone by this point and after a few false starts we managed to find a wooded spot somewhere before Steyning.

This spot was a little more cramped and the ground was dusty and stony - horrible to pitch into. Combined with the dark and my exhausted lack of co-ordination, I was even slower at pitching the tarp than the previous night. When it was suggested to me that it would make life a lot easier if I just used the trees to pitch the tarp rather than the bike, I nearly snapped; "I. Have. Come. To. Pitch. The. Tarp. Using. The. Bike. And. It. Will. Take. As. Long. As. It. Takes."

In the interests of efficiency and weight-saving I elected not to take a head torch, rather using a helmet mount for my front bike light around camp. This was a mistake - of course I had to wear the bloody helmet all evening! Quite aside from the irritation, the helmet mount kept catching against the low branches of the hawthorn, meaning that my frustration just boiled over further. Plunging the guylines into 2-foot deep nettles and brambles was the icing on the cake, but by this point my body was too tired to care.

This time my sleep was very uncomfortable - no particular reason, I think it was a combination of aching muscles, needing the toilet, a slope and also a leaky inflatable mat. Unfortunately the wheel at one end of the pitch had collapsed but other than that, it was actually a pretty tight pitch. A bit of practice pitching in a park, some line locks and a bit more confidence, and it'll be much happier. I made a minor change the second night by using the bike upturned on its saddle which made a lot more sense, although I think it would have been better to have my head at that end (more secure, plus more space). Also I must admit that using the trees would of course have made life simpler, although I was determined to use the bike for pitching this time around and glad I did.

The following morning we elected to go a while further before finding a suitable place to turn off and head for a train station, most likely Brighton. In the event despite a night's sleep my body gave up on me before too long, on the climb up to Tottington Barn so we turned off immediately and had a fun descent into Southwick, where we took the sea road through Hove and into Brighton. Where our problems began.

We had neglected to note that this was London to Brighton day! The city was full of thousands of tired-but-happy cyclists, and a sign at Brighton station saying no bikes would be carried from that station today. Fair enough, we thought, and rode to London Road (Brighton is surprisingly hilly if you're already knackered!). Same story there. We checked the website, and the full horror of the situation became apparent: no stations within 30 miles of Brighton were accepting bikes. Pleading got us short shrift and we were advised that while we might get lucky at a smaller/more lenient station, the conductors would throw us off in any event. The nearest station was Horley, the other side of Gatwick. With knobbly tyres, no lockout on the suspension, broken bodies and carrying a load of kit, a 30 mile ride was, by this point, out of the question. It's worth noting that had we got all the way to Eastbourne, we'd have had the same problem as it was within the "no bikes" zone!

In the end we made our way down to the finish line where the British HEart Foundation were running buses (with bikes in the lorry) - pleading with the BHF guys got us nowhere but fortunately a bloke overheard me and had a couple of bus tickets going spare and sold them to us. If I ever meet Tony again I owe him a pint, especially as we didn't have enough cash to cover the face value but he accepted anyway!

From then on the journey was painless. Most amusing moment came as we stopped at a traffic lights when a bloke knocked on the door of the coach, demanding to be let on. The driver opened up and it was Chris Eubank! He was just curious to know why there were loads of people in sportswear. He made a little speech and then hopped off again.

Verdict: my first bikepacking trip was brilliant, at least the combination of cycling and bivvying is a real winner, but the weekend itself wasn't much fun. With better fitness, less weight on the back, better tarp pitching skills, an earlier start, and a slightly shorter/easier route it would have been perfect. There's still no feeling in the world better than waking up with your face in the outdoors - it beats a tent hands down.


  • Alpkit Airlok Xtra (8 litres) strapped to handlebars with sleeping bag (my crap 3-season, it was too warm to take the 4-season!) plus other bits (initially bivvy bag, then first aid kit)
  • Alpkit Airlok drybag (2 litres) clipped to saddle rail and (badly) strapped to seatpost
  • 2 x bottle cages
  • 32 litre rucksack (Osprey Hornet) containing
    • Clothes: merino long sleeved base layer (handy at night, but otherwise unnecessary), long johns (lightest way of getting evening warmth, but also unnecessary in the end), spare socks & boxers, midlayer (my trusty old Icebreaker 320-weight), waterproof jacket
    • Tarp (Terra Nova Competition 1) plus pegs, and spare cord
    • Bivvy bag (Rab Alpine)
    • Maps x 2 (covering about 80% of the SDW route) plus compass. Duncan carried a GPS but I don't believe in such nonsense
    • First aid kit
    • Multitool & spare tubes
    • Camera (definitely worth the extra weight, although it would be nice to have it handy in a "fuel tank" style top tube bag
    • Food: hot ready meals plus snacks. Pretty happy with the combinations, although I'd up the Kendal mint cake/chocolate content
The main investments I need are suitable bags: the drybag strapped to the handlebars worked fine and I won't be rushing to buy a fancy system, but I'd previously tried strapping an 8l bag to the seatpost senza harness and it would be a bit dodgy over the course of a day. The good folks at Bear Bones all swear by the Wildcat Tiger, although I wouldn't mind something a bit more capacious - I'll keep an eye open on what Alpkit are doing with their new bits and pieces. A frame bag becomes less essential if bottle cages take up most of the space, but a top tube bag seems to be very important (for camera, phone, multitool) and it would be nice to have snacks and water at hand in feed bags. 

Photos to be inserted shortly...

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The daily supermarket tragedy

There's a pitiful scene which is played out every day in the Willesden Green Sainsbury's - and probably in thousands of supermarkets across the whole country.

About 8pm, a crowd of people starts forming around the bread aisle. They hover, blank faces, empty baskets, on edge and alert, fidgeting and shuffling. Tonight, perhaps, she is late. They seem more restless than usual. No words are spoken, but if they were, they would not be English.

Suddenly, a door swings open, a trolley comes into view, the crowd braces itself. She has arrived with the stale rolls and bagels which have not been sold and will be reduced to 20p for a pack of four. One by one they have the yellow sticker attached. She can't keep up. No sooner has the sticker been added, than the packs are snapped up by waiting hands and shovelled into the baskets.

It's a nice feeling, being able to grab a bargain at the end of the day. Products that would otherwise be a luxury come into range - free range chicken, perhaps tuna steaks, or some posh ham. But this isn't canny bargain-hunting. This is a subsistence economy. Baskets fill up with rolls and little else. One man has a basket full of bagels and two tubs of Basics yoghurt. Carbohydrate and protein. Enough to keep a family of eight alive for another day. And at a total cost of less than £2.

There's no need to try and imagine what food banks are like. You can see this pathetic scene, just a baby step above food banks, every evening in the supermarket. Where are they from? Judging from appearance probably Kurdish, Albanian or Romany but that's by-the-by. They're trying to keep their heads above water in Britain and sinking fast.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Lions squad post 6 Nations

Everyone's playing the Lions squad guessing game at the moment, so I thought I'd join in and make some ill-informed guesses based on what I've seen (and probably partly based on what I've heard from others more knowledgable than me).

Looking at the options available, some positions immediately leap out as having an embarrassment of riches, while others are weak. Strong positions include loose head prop, openside flanker, scrum half, and the back three; on the other hand, there's very little strength in depth in the second row, number 8 or inside centre, while out-half/fly-half/stand-off looks worrying if you take away Sexton and Farrell.

As always with Lions squads, there are a lot of very good players who will be left behind. Currently only Ferris is definitely out through injury, and that'll inevitably change, so lots of others will get a call-up. But if I were Warren Gatland and I had to pick the squad tomorrow, this would be what I'd pick.

Loose head prop
Close, this one. Healy is a bit more destructive than Jenkins and offers slightly more in the loose, although he has a tendency to give away penalties. I would be happy with either starting. If Alex Corbisiero can prove his fitness and get some good matches in for London Irish before the end of the season, I'd have him in there too, despite having missed the entire 6 Nations. Ryan Grant has been the best of Scotland's props and Vunipola can't be far away from the squad either. It's a position of strength with lots of decent options.
On the pitch: Healy
On the bench: Jenkins
On the plane: Corbisiero
On standby: Grant
On the beach: Marler, Vunipola, Sheridan, James

The first of the problem positions. Going into the 6 Nations, Rory Best was the clear pick and a brilliant performance against Wales bolstered his position further. However, since then he's gone off the boil and his form is worrying. Perhaps I'm overly traditional, but for me front row players need to be good at their specialism first and anything they do in the loose is a bonus. Best is very good in the scrum and terrific in the loose, but to claim the Test spot his throwing will need to be more consistent. The form man is Hibbard who has been excellent for Ospreys and Wales. I've always been a fan of Ross Ford and he may just pip Tom Youngs for the third spot, but that's very much a midweek job.
On the pitch: Best
On the bench: Hibbard
On the plane: Ford
On standby: Tom Youngs
On the beach: Hartley, Rees, Owens

Tight head prop
The Lions scrum should, in theory, be dominant against the Wallabies. I'm a huge fan of Dan Cole but Jones has the experience and consistency - he's not one to go backwards (although Cian Healy gave him a rough time of it). After those two, the third position is very much a standby place - Euan Murray may travel even though he's had a mediocre Championship.
On the pitch: Adam Jones
On the bench: Cole
On the plane: Murray
On standby: Ross
On the beach: Cross

Second row
There are no standout locks this year. It's very competitive with at least seven players challenging for a place in the squad. Paul O'Connell is still the outstanding northern hemisphere second row forward of his generation and will surely travel if fit; if he's up to anything near 100% he will start. Perhaps I'm biased but I'd put him alongside his Munster colleague Donnacha Ryan. Joe Launchbury is good enough to go and Geoff Parling has also had a good championship. Of the Scots, Jim Hamilton is the form player and it would not be a surprise to see him travel, but Richie Gray's star is waning and he may miss out.
On the pitch: Ryan, O'Connell
On the bench: Launchbury
On the plane: Parling, Alun Wyn Jones
On standby: Hamilton, Gray
On the beach: Lawes, Hines, Charteris, McCarthy, O'Callaghan, Evans

Blind-side flanker
We have loads of superb options in the back row although most of them are flankers/all-rounders rather than No 8 specialists. Ryan Jones, if he stays fit, travels, as does Kelly Brown who is in excellent form; Dan Lydiate also deserves a place based on 2012 form alone. However, for the starting XI for the first Test I suspect Warren Gatland may try to include both Chris Robshaw and Sam Warburton in the XV, which might well see Robshaw starting at 6.
On the pitch: (Robshaw)
On the bench: Ryan Jones
On the plane: Lydiate, Kelly Brown
On standby: O'Mahony, Denton
On the beach: Croft, Haskell, Ferris

Open-side flanker
Justin Tipuric is the name on everyone's lips following his demolition of England and he may be one of the late movers to grab a place in the squad. Even so, I suspect Warburton and Robshaw have the starting 7 spot sewn up between them. The Irish back row have been so-so of late, so Peter O'Mahony just misses out (his time will come) but Sean O'Brien's versatility may earn him a place in the midweek team - he had a busy 6 Nations and sits proudly near the top of most of the stats tables.
On the pitch: Robshaw, Warburton
On the bench:
On the plane: O'Brien, Tipuric
On standby:
On the beach:

Number 8
Toby Faletau has had a great 6 Nations and will surely start. Of the others, I rather suspect that Jamie Heaslip may have played his way out of contention in a competitive back row. Ryan Jones, Sean O'Brien and Kelly Brown can all play at number 8 (Jones and Brown are possible starting options) and surely they are all ahead of Heaslip in the pecking order. It's a shame for the Irish captain, but unless he puts in a monster display for Leinster in the Amlin, he'll be staying at home.
On the pitch: Faletau
On the bench:
On the plane:
On standby: Heaslip, Wood
On the beach: Easter, Beattie, Morgan

Scrum half
Another position of strength with four excellent options - one will have to miss out. It'll be a shame for whoever doesn't travel. My slight preference would be for the exciting Ben Youngs to start - his ball supply is quick and inventive - although Phillips will likely start. Greig Laidlaw and Conor Murray have both been in excellent form in the 6 Nations and either could go. Danny Care has no chance of making the squad.
On the pitch: Ben Youngs
On the bench: Laidlaw
On the plane: Phillips
On standby: Conor Murray
On the beach: Care

I must admit to being very, very impressed with England's young half-back combination and I would love to see a Youngs-Farrell combination. It works for England who always look like they have the potential to score tries even if the execution lets them down in midfield (especially with the rather lumpen Brad Barritt). Jonny Sexton obviously goes as well and he is, in truth, the more likely starter. Those two are miles ahead of anyone else; I'm not convinced Dan Biggar has done enough to earn a place on the plane, so Toby Flood may go, although there's always the chance that someone like Wilkinson could end up touring. Or is there a possibility of using Laidlaw as an alternative 10 and leaving Flood/Biggar behind to save a space?
On the pitch: Farrell
On the bench: Sexton
On the plane: Flood (or Laidlaw)
On standby: Biggar
On the beach: Wilkinson, Weir, Ruaridh Jackson, Paddy Jackson, O'Gara

Inside centre
To counter my first choice half back pairing, I'd go with experience and reputation (which don't count for nothing). Jamie Roberts has done it all before and isn't a player to let the side down. There's also the possibility that Tuilagi or Davies may be picked at 12. While I described Barritt as "lumpen" above, he's also a terrific defensive centre, so he may well be needed to counter the dancing Australian midfield. He's good enough to go. Matt Scott is the best of the rather limited options elsewhere. Luke Marshall - described by some as a "bolter" before he even made his international début - hasn't done anything to reduce his chances of travelling, but I'd suggest he'll probably just miss out.
On the pitch: Roberts
On the bench:
On the plane: Barritt
On standby: Scott
On the beach: Lamont, Luke Marshall, D'Arcy

Outside centre
Surely the final act for great man? O'Driscoll remains one of the best centres in world rugby and a player the Wallabies will genuinely fear. He also turns it on for the big occasion. Centre is a pretty limited area for the Lions this year and BOD towers above all other options. It might seem a little passé to suggest the old warriors Roberts and BOD in the centre, but without any outstanding alternatives (I don't buy into the Tuilagi hype) it might be the best combination.
On the pitch: O'Driscoll
On the bench: 
On the plane: Davies, Tuilagi
On standby: Twelvetrees
On the beach: Earls, Max Evans

George North definitely starts on the left. Alex Cuthbert is most likely to start as well, although I'd love to see a wildcard option like Corkman Simon Zebo who has been superb all season. Tommy Bowe is a player whose injury might, unfortunately  have taken his chances of making the squad. It's hard to choose between the Scots wingers but one will travel. Chris Ashton, however, is in terrible form (his lame attempt at a tackle on Wesley Fofana summed his year up) and with plenty of world class options elsewhere, I'd confidently predict that he'll miss out entirely. If Gatland wants to play Stuart Hogg, then he may find himself at 14 (or even Halfpenny on the wing). We have a silly amount of options here.
On the pitch: North, Zebo
On the bench:
On the plane: Cuthbert, Visser
On standby: Bowe, Maitland
On the beach: Ashton, Gilroy

Full back
Leigh Halfpenny is the first name on the teamsheet and it probably makes sense to play him in his best position at 15. Hogg will also be involved (and a possible starter), and Kearney's experience will get him on the plane even if his involvement might be restricted to midweek this time around. He's not gone off the boil as much as others have suggested, but he's not a starter with Halfpenny around.
On the pitch: Halfpenny
On the bench: Hogg
On the plane: Kearney
On standby: Goode
On the beach: Byrne, Williams, Brown, Foden

Lots of questions, lots of options. Much may change over the next few weeks (we have the Heineken Cup quarter finals to look forward to, the usual league matches, and injuries are inevitable as well). The only positions that really worry me are hooker and fly half; elsewhere we look reasonably strong.

The squad I'd like to see, as of 19 March:
Healy, Jenkins, Corbisiero;
Best, Hibbard, Ford;
A Jones, Cole, Murray;
Ryan, O'Connell, Launchbury, Parling, AW Jones;
Warburton, Robshaw, Tipuric, R Jones, Lydiate, O'Brien, Faletau, K Brown;
B Youngs, Phillips, Laidlaw;
Farrell, Sexton;
Roberts, O'Driscoll, Barritt, Tuilagi, Davies;
North, Cuthbert, Zebo, Visser;
Halfpenny, Hogg, Kearney

That's 39 (15 Welsh, 9 English, 9 Irish, 6 Scots). If I need to lose a couple, it'd be Parling (or Lydiate) and Visser (or Davies or Kearney) who'd get the chop.

My starting XV:
1. Healy (I)
2. Best (I)
3. A Jones (W)
4. Ryan (I)
5. O'Connell (I)
6. Robshaw (E)
7. Warburton (W)
8. Faletau (W)
9. B Youngs (E)
10. Farrell (E)
11. North (W)
12. Roberts (W)
13. O'Driscoll (I)
14. Zebo (I)
15. Halfpenny (W)
Subs: Jenkins (W), Hibbard (W), Cole (E), Launchbury (E), R Jones (W), Laidlaw (S), Sexton (I), Hogg (S)

Bring it on.