Harley Walshe could have been forgiven for thinking his AFL dream was over.

Going undrafted as a eligible TAC Cup player has happened to hundreds of prospective AFL players around Australia, and even though Walshe had garnered interest from AFL clubs, the rangy key defender was training with VFL club Williamstown when the Western Jets threw him a lifeline.

Walshe benefited from a rule the AFL introduced into the TAC Cup in 2007, where each club could select five 19-year-old players to bring back for a second year in the system. The only stipulation to the rule is that the maximum amount of 19-year-olds allowed in the side for any one game is three.

“They told us kind of late (that we were coming back as 19-year-olds). We were told sort of towards late December, early January. So at the time we were doing a full VFL pre-season, which was great in terms of development,” Walshe said.

“I love the rule. It just provides another opportunity for players that might not have gotten drafted the first time around. Plus you get another year with a really solid group of mates.”

Far from being discouraged by not being selected by an AFL side, Walshe used the off-season at Williamstown to his benefit, adding weight to what he admits was “a rather thin” frame. At 197 cm and 91 kg, it was a worthwhile exercise.

“I put on about seven kilos. In my role as a shut down defender, this year I feel a lot more capable with taking on the bigger bodies. It’s much easier to hold out opponents, and I back my reach and pace to beat out opponents.”

It’s those qualities that have seen Walshe compared to ageless Essendon stalwart Dustin Fletcher. While it’s a comparison that he acknowledges with a smile on his face, it’s high praise.

“He’s a legend. I’m an Essendon supporter so I’ve grown up admiring ‘Fletch’ my whole life. I can see the similarities – we’re both key defenders with long arms and model our game around spoiling – but he’s a superstar. I’ve got a while to go yet.”

Walshe’s football nous increased as well. Stopping key forwards such as Gippsland’s Josh Scott – his “biggest challenge so far this year” – became as much of a mind game as it did a physical task.

“I think he was leading the goalkicking for the competition, he had something ridiculous like 25 goals. But we were able to work out as a team what to do in order to make his job as difficult as possible. Things like pushing him to the boundary and making his shots for goal longer and more difficult.”

Walshe watched in late 2011 as some of his best mates and teammates from Wesley’s superstar school football team headed to the AFL. Names like Sam Frost (GWS’ pick one in the rookie draft), Toby Greene (pick 14 to GWS), Ben Darrou (a rookie selection at Richmond), Hal Hunter (a rookie selection at Essendon) and Tom Curran (pick 40 to North Melbourne) went off the board.

Far from being disappointed at being overlooked, Walshe has nothing but praise for his old team mates.

“It’s great. It’s surreal to know that people you’ve grown up playing footy with are capable of playing at that level, and at the same time it’s really encouraging to know exactly what level you have to play at to be able to make it in the in AFL.”

At a local level, the family name rings loudest at WRFL club Spotswood. Walshe’s father Tony was club president for a period, and coached junior sides from under 12s all the way through until under 16s, including both Walshe and his brother Brandon. His mother Jenny helps out on game days.

Walshe has nothing but positive things to say about the Woodsmen, as they are known. The club has produced AFL players such as Callan Ward and Bachar Houli and is currently home to Jason Cloke, brother of Travis.

“They’re a great club. Our family has been involved there for a long time. Dad’s a life member. It’s always great to get down there for a game every now and again. I love it. We have a lot of friends from the club.”

Away from the field of play, Walshe is completing a business degree and balancing books for a family friend’s firm. He says although it is a challenge, it’s “nice to have a balance between training for footy and normal life.”

Finally, we get an insight into what Walshe believes needs to improve if he is to catch the eye of AFL talent scouts.

“I want to improve my possession totals and my endurance. I’m defending well, I just want to get more of the footy. Things like my handball efficiency can also improve. Just playing my role is something I want to work on, to eventually realise that dream of making the big leagues.”

If Walshe’s skills end up matching his attitude, don’t bet against it.