WE HANG on what they say, we scrutinise every move they make, and those they don’t, we analyse every little detail of their task of rousing 22 players into spirited action each week, looking for clues as to just what will unfold.

In a team game of large numbers, it’s the coach who comes to most represent the success or failure of that side. It’s he who explains the victories, rationalises the losses, sets the course being followed and the make-up of the playing group attempting to steer the ship.

It’s his own performance, paradoxically, which is arguably the hardest to assess. It obviously can’t be measured in kicks, handballs or goals, but nor even ladder position, the quality of the tools with which Geelong’s Mark Thompson has to work giving him a clear advantage over, say Richmond’s Damien Hardwick, before the battle has even started.

But it doesn’t mean we can’t have a crack at measuring just which coaches are getting the most out of the resources they do have, and coping best with the various slings and arrows of an AFL season. And the standings on a coaching ladder don’t necessarily go hand in hand with the premiership version.

Like the real ladder, though, there is a standout at the top. And it’s not Thompson, as tremendous as his Cats have been. It’s his former Essendon premiership teammate Mark Harvey, and by some margin.

The turnaround in the perception of the Dockers’ coach has been, to say the least, swift. In late March, on the eve of the season, Harvey was a hot favourite to be the first coach of 2010 to lose his job. Instead, on Wednesday, he was reappointed until the end of 2012.

A year ago, the criticisms were cutting, the most memorable former St Kilda coach Grant Thomas’ blunt assessment that: ”It is sad to say it but, unfortunately, he seems to be well out of his depth. His charges do not respond to his coaching and don’t play for him.”

No one could doubt they are now. It took a while, but Harvey’s prints are all over the Dockers of 2010, having moulded, without too much off-season tinkering, by far the hardest and most resilient version of Freo we’ve ever seen.

Nothing exemplifies that better than a vastly-improved record on the road, four wins from six starts outside Perth so far. Or their on-field attitude, the Dockers several times over their nine wins to date having answered emphatically when challenged in games.

But Harvey’s team, like him as a player, has a great blend of toughness, efficiency and audacity, the latter demonstrated in those such as livewire forward Hayden Ballantyne and come-from-nowhere midfielder Michael Barlow. It’s been as stellar a coaching performance as that of Fremantle as a unit.

There’s a clear No. 2 as well on the coaching ladder in my view, and a runaway winner of the ”coaching in adversity” stakes, St Kilda’s Ross Lyon.

The controversies started last year for the Saints with the recruitment of Andrew Lovett, and have barely stopped since, an almost weekly catalogue of potential distractions. Then, in round three, St Kilda lost its skipper and clearly most important player in Nick Riewoldt.

But save for a stumble between rounds five and eight, when his team lost three out of four, Lyon has kept the Saints not only in the hunt, but second on the ladder, with still plenty of scope for improvement, and Riewoldt’s long-awaited return now imminent.

Lyon’s faith in game plan and structures over mere personnel has clearly been a big factor in the successful holding mission. But so has his capacity to remain focused and unflustered by some off-field scripts straight out of the Bold and the Beautiful.

They’re strengths of his Geelong rival, Thompson, too. It’s fashionable to see the Cats as being on auto-pilot, but they were also a team supposedly about to slide a little, but instead looks to have even improved.

”Bomber” has Shannon Byrnes and Travis Varcoe playing career-best football, ditto James Kelly. He threw Tom Hawkins into the ruck with impressive results, and oversaw a recruiting punt which paid off big-time in the shape of James Podsiadly, all while the injury toll mounted, the Cats still hardly missing a beat.

Sydney is sixth on the ladder, a surprise to many, but its coach, Paul Roos, comes in even higher in this exercise at fourth. In his last year in the job, Roos is having a blinder, some warhorses revitalised, but the kids and the pick-ups from elsewhere responding as well.

It’s an effort commentator David King rates highly, ”as much for his recruiting as his coaching”. ”All those guys have come in for a purpose, and all have played their role,” he says.

Not far behind Roos on the coaching ladder are two debutants. Brad Scott’s young North Melbourne couldn’t have started a lot worse, belted when it counted by Port Adelaide, towelled up by over 100 points against St Kilda, and without critical key forward Drew Petrie.

Since then its racked up seven wins, those against Brisbane Lions and Carlton, epitomising the sort of ferocity at the ball you’d expect from a side coached by the hard-nosed former Lions defender. With so many kids in key midfield roles, it’s no small feat. ”They just play the way you’d expect under him,” says commentator Garry Lyon. ”And to be able to get a group with that many kids to learn to play that way so quickly is a pretty fair effort.”

King concurs. ”The kids are playing like men. And though he didn’t want them to be seen as the old Shinboners, he’s actually encapsulated that perfectly.”

The rate of improvement of Hardwick’s Richmond, meanwhile, has been quite astonishing, even to his coaching peers. ”For a while, I seriously thought they were going to get beaten by 100 points every week,” said one this week.

Instead, the Tigers have won three of their past four games. Hardwick’s side learns apace, and is sticking to a formula of hard-at-it contesting and quick, direct movement. He’s left Jack Riewoldt one-out, the results spectacular, sparked veterans Shane Tuck and Ben Cousins back into life, and boom draftee Dustin Martin is just one of a number of promising kids who get better week by week. Not bad in the space of 13 games.

Carlton coach Brett Ratten cops more flak from his own fans than perhaps any of his rivals, but is just outside the top eight. The obvious knock on the Blues, and by extension their coach, is their capacity, as in the past fortnight, to drop games they are expected to win. But while the highs and lows haven’t been evened out enough yet, the highs, two beltings of Geelong and St Kilda, have been spectacular. His faith in Jordan Russell has been rewarded in the emergence of a fine player off half-back for the Blues, and Mitch Robinson is making his presence felt more.

Most of all, though, Ratten reshaped a forward set-up that nobody expected to kick enough goals in the absence of the departed Brendan Fevola, but has proved almost as productive, and did it with dare, unleashing the whippy sharpshooting trio of Eddie Betts, Jeff Garlett and Chris Yarran. ”Brendan who?” quips King.

At the other end of the coaching ladder, it’s easy, and often lazy, to plonk the bosses of those teams most underperformed. But it’s hard not to look at both West Coast and Adelaide and see problems in the box as well as on the field.

John Worsfold, says one contemporary, ”just doesn’t coach in the modern style”. ”All that rolling back and helping the defenders, he just refuses to do it”.

King believes the Eagles consistently go too tall in attack.

”The modern game says you get the ball forward then put pressure on, lock it in. They’re picking as many as five talls, so how are they going to put pressure on? It diminishes their run late in games, and is a major factor in why they haven’t been able to run out games.”

Injuries, both pre-season and during, have cruelled Adelaide. But so, increasingly, does Neil Craig’s rigidity appear to be doing likewise, the degree of hesitation and uncertainty in so many capable and experienced senior hands remarkable. Regardless of circumstance, no side good enough to miss out on a preliminary final by five points should be sitting 15th on the ladder just a dozen games later.

Then there’s the gambler who lost. Michael Voss, like Roos, punted on a big group of experienced trade pick-ups.

His, however, has been a far less successful bet, the gains from the half-dozen strong group minimal, Fevola presenting his usual share of management headaches, the old stagers like Jonathan Brown, Simon Black and Luke Power still too crucial to the Lions’ performance, and coach and club dithering too long over the fitness of both their key forwards.

Like his team, there might still be time for Voss to get back in the game in 2010. But the coaching version of one of the all-time great players can no longer simply go out and pick up a swag of damaging possessions.

Finding some badly needed touch for an AFL coach is a lot harder and a lot less easily measured. And as a couple of much more experienced coaching hands whose sides are even lower on the ladder would attest, form when lost, can be a lot more difficult to recover.

Connolly’s 2010 coaches ladder

1. MARK HARVEY (Fremantle)

Was supposed to be the first sacked, instead he’s just been reappointed. His Dockers have got harder, tougher and a lot more consistent without sacrificing flair.

2. ROSS LYON (St Kilda)

No rival has had anything like the amount of crisis management with which Lyon has had to deal, not to mention the loss of his most important player, but Saints remain near top.

3. MARK THOMPSON (Geelong)

Many thought the Cats could slide a little. Scarily, they might actually have got better, Thompson eking more out of lesser lights and breezing through the loss of key players.

4. PAUL ROOS (Sydney)

Did anyone think the Swans would be challenging for top four? Roos’ last year as Swans coach is turning into one of his best, shaped by some smart coach-driven recruiting.

5. BRAD SCOTT (North Melbourne)

Big immediate impact on young list has the Roos playing a harder and more direct brand, the coach having turned around some potentially deflating early beltings.

6. RODNEY EADE (Western Bulldogs)

Dogs haven’t been at their best, but Eade has kept them within striking distance nonetheless, some smart positional moves – and the recruitment of Barry Hall — paying off.

7. MICK MALTHOUSE (Collingwood)

Promotion of team culture has paid off in a very even spread of talent. Despite natural defensive instincts, has embraced a more attacking version of his Pies.

8. DAMIEN HARDWICK (Richmond)

Engineered remarkable transformation of a team regarded early as one of the worst ever to three wins from past four games, with young stars emerging everywhere.

9. BRETT RATTEN (Carlton)

Still wears supporter flak, but has dragged improvement out of many, and reorganised forward set-up so well Fevola has barely been missed.

10. DEAN BAILEY (Melbourne)

Demon kids have come on quickly, and Jamar is a veteran transformed. Melbourne plays an attacking Geelong-like game under his watch, and results are promising.

11. ALASTAIR CLARKSON (Hawthorn)

Good comeback by his Hawks, tempered a little by how badly things had spiralled out of control before then, the team’s trademark physicality completely absent for too long.

12. MATTHEW KNIGHTS (Essendon)

Long-term vision still looks OK, and Dons have been more resilient and consistent, but there’s been questions about selection and structure at times as well.

13. MARK WILLIAMS (Port Adelaide)

Things have fallen away too quickly for the Power, a temporary harder streak now completely absent, the flakiness not reflecting well on his capacity to motivate the group.

14. MICHAEL VOSS (Brisbane Lions)

The recruiting spree was bold, but appears to have backfired, too much ducks and drakes about fitness of key players, and mid-tier not responding to increased responsibility.

15. NEIL CRAIG (Adelaide)

Stunning demise for team a kick away from last year’s preliminary final. Crows look shell-shocked, hesitant and at times completely confused by rigid methodology.

16. JOHN WORSFOLD (West Coast)

Eagles are playing an outdated game, too tall, inflexible, and without enough forward pressure. Skill level is at times atrocious, and doesn’t appear to have improved.

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