Rugby Union / Five Nations Focus: England's dominating desire: Cooke's conquerors are driven by overwhelming passion for success: Steve Bale on the motivation behind the march on a rugby Grand Slam hat-trick

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IF ENGLAND turn expectation into realisation by completing an unprecedented third consecutive Grand Slam, will they take on the mantle of greatness? Or should their abiding failure to master Australia and New Zealand exclude them from such grandiose esteem?

To which questions the fair and honest answers are yes to the first - whatever the standard of the opposition - and no to the second. Most observers would agree that the Welsh sides of the Seventies were among the greatest since the war even though they never beat the All Blacks, and this England are entitled to the same consideration, at least until we see the outcome of their contretemps with the French at Twickenham tomorrow.

The plain fact that a triple Grand Slam has never been achieved indicates that its first achiever will have gone beyond the merely good. 'The difference between being good and great is simply extra effort,' Geoff Cooke, the England manager, said at a pre-championship bash thrown by the Rugby Football Union sponsors, Save & Prosper, the other night.

With Cooke's England there is never any shortage of effort, mental as much as physical. 'There's only one formula for success: an overwhelming desire to succeed,' the manager added. This was precisely what England used not to have, and why over so many years - virtually all the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties - they under-achieved and sometimes seemed hardly to mind.

These days not only have England put these things to right; they do them better than anyone else among the Five Nations. Can anyone think of anything anyone else in the championship actually does better than England? At long last the country's copious rugby talent, a matter of both quantity and quality, is properly identified and developed. Team selection is stable and consistent. Preparation, fitness, experience and confidence are all unsurpassed.

This has been Cooke's grand design which has led to Grand Slams because the specific consequence of the above has been forwards of terrific strength and unheard-off skill, and backs with a capacity equally for the magnificent and the mundane. And heaven help the rest, there is a thrusting new generation already willing and almost able to take over.

So how did it come about, the hegemony which caused Pierre Berbizier, coach of France, to call England 'the reference point for rugby in Europe'? It began when they turned what had been considered a weakness into their greatest strength, the sheer volume of people playing the game in England.

The Guinness Rugby Union Fact Book states that there are 375,000 players in England. Nowhere else, not even France with 218,500 or New Zealand with 182,500, comes close. In Wales there are said to be 40,000, in Scotland 25,000, in Ireland 12,500. South Africa has 78,000 but Australia produced a team who won the World Cup from a derisory rugby union-playing population of 11,500.

It was said that, faced with such a choice, the England selectors never knew quite whom to pick. As a result their teams were subject to constant, often alarming and occasionally irrational change. 'Players look over their shoulder instead of going out and doing what they are good at,' said Les Cusworth, the Leicester stand-off who was in and out more times than he cares to remember.

The change to changelessness is staggering. It really is more difficult nowadays getting out of the England side than getting in. Selectorial loyalty has, unequivocally, been fundamental to England's success. Look at the rest: the vagaries of French selection are reminiscent of the old England, the new consistency in Wales a conscious attempt to emulate England.

The numbers are striking. Since Cooke's getting-to-know-you first season as manager, 1987-88, he has never used more than 18 players during a championship. There were 16 in 1989, 17 in 1990, 15 - a totally unchanged team for only the second time in England's rugby history - while doing the 1991 Grand Slam. Even the 18 who achieved the second Slam last year were that many only because of two injury-induced replacements during matches.

All the while it has been England's great good fortune to be able to introduce newcomers in ones and twos and into a successful, confident and above all winning side. Selectors have always backed their judgement - and then been justified in doing so by England's results.

'If you choose a side and say those are the best 15 to play for England, I can't see how the evidence of one game should cause you to change your mind,' Cooke said. 'It's when people habitually make mistakes that you have to query their effectiveness in the side, but it needs two or three internationals before you can make your judgement.'

In other words, no more one-cap wonders. In fact in the England team these days you are more likely to find players with 50 or more. Even the captain Will Carling, a sprog of 27, already has 38. So it takes an awful lot to convince an England selector that he was wrong. A solitary defeat would certainly not suffice, and there have not even been many solitary defeats just lately.

Contrast that with Wales, where stability may now be the vogue but where only a couple of years back there were more than 70 capped players plying their trade at club level. Or the Scots and Irish, who have undergone radical surgery for their Murrayfield meeting tomorrow.

Or the French, who may at last have settled on the right selection for tomorrow's game but did so only by changing half the team who lost to Argentina. And against the Pumas half the team who had beaten South Africa had been changed. How perfectly French; how bizarre.

And how they all envy the champions, how they hate constantly trying to catch up, because by the time the rest arrive England will have advanced still further and be gone. Stan Liptrot, an Englishman coaching in Wales, puts it neatly: 'It's not a destination but a journey and England are well ahead.'

Still well enough ahead, what's more, to be champions again in 1993. This may be annoying for the chasers but - with the pounds 18.5m East Stand, now rising over Twickenham, having to be paid for - is sheer delight (or perhaps sheer relief) for the RFU treasurer.