Dawson leads the England laments

Clive Woodward's public reaction to England's Six Nations misfire against Ireland at Twickenham, their first home defeat since 1999, was suitably statesmanlike - he is about to become a knight of the realm, after all. Behind closed doors, he made his feelings known in the language of the common man, and his words left every member of the red rose army contemplating the possibility of demotion.

Matt Dawson, an occasional national captain and the man in charge when England last lost to the Irish - in Dublin in 2001 - was among the first to raise his head above the parapet. "The slate is clean now," he said. "It wouldn't surprise me if I wasn't included in the team for the next match against Wales. But then, there are 22 players wondering whether they will be involved. If you made one change, you could make 15. None of us is particularly proud of the way we played."

Another of Woodward's big-name lieutenants, Jason Robinson, was sharply critical of the team's performance. "It has to be the most disappointing day I've experienced in an England shirt," he said."It is not the fact that we lost, but the fact of how we lost. We trained hard all week, developed our game plan and delivered absolutely none of it. The unforced errors meant there was no phase-play, and no ball out wide. How are we supposed to win a game of rugby playing like that?"

Less than four months after breaking the southern hemisphere's monopoly on global success by lifting the World Cup in Sydney, England stand at a crossroads. Woodward will certainly make changes for the match with Wales at Twickenham on Saturday week, but what changes? Will he press forward with his reconstruction of the side in the post-Martin Johnson era by declaring his long-term faith in the likes of James Simpson-Daniel, the brilliant young Gloucester wing, and Chris Jones, the dynamic loose forward from Sale? Or will he go for a short-term fix by recalling the greybeard brigade, led by Jason Leonard and Neil Back?

Woodward has a week to make up his mind. He is likely to attend the Powergen Cup semi-final between Sale and Leeds on Saturday, where Jones and two of the Tykes' tight forwards, Mark Regan and Tom Palmer, will fall under his gaze. But nine Premiership clubs have a free weekend - a break that does not suit the purposes of the England hierarchy.

Like his coach, Dawson was keen to give Ireland full credit for their performance. "People are saying the Twickenham fortress has been smashed," he said, "but we should concentrate at least some of our thoughts on the fact that Ireland played very well. There was no complacency on our part. We are a hugely humble group of individuals." That last comment was not quite accurate. The description that Dawson should have used, in light of the magnitude of the defeat, was "hugely humbled".

Happily, the Six Nations organisers are feeling a whole lot better than England after the third round of matches. Italy's victory over Scotland in Rome, followed by the Irish uprising in London, saved the tournament from a fresh torrent of criticism over its apparent predictability, while yesterday's events in Cardiff, where the French beat Wales 29-22, increased the likelihood of a meaningful finale in Paris on 27 March.

France are on course for a second Grand Slam in three years - their next game is against a Scottish side close to crisis point - and if England are in no position to challenge them for the ultimate prize in European rugby, they will certainly be in a position to deny them.