How did Sydney's Tom Papley slide through to the AFL rookie draft in 2015?

Rhett McLennan still laughs when recalling Tom Papley's efforts as a fresh-faced 19-year-old coming up against seasoned Geelong veteran Jimmy Bartel in the VFL during the 2015 season.

Papley had been called-up by Casey after starring for Gippsland in the TAC Cup (now called the NAB League) where he played 15 matches and booted 33 goals despite spending some time through the midfield.

The step-up from junior competitions to senior football can often overawe a young prospect -- especially so when they're asked to line up against a triple-premiership winning Brownlow medallist such as Bartel -- but McLennan recalls Papley showing no signs of nerves.

"His real standout game where he got a bit more love from recruiters was a VFL game for Casey when they played Geelong," the Gippsland Power talent pathways coach tells ESPN. "He played on Jimmy Bartel and Tom did a couple of things where he made Jimmy look a bit silly - a great mark, and he ran around him a couple of times ... it was a wet day and Jimmy Bartel is probably one of the best wet weather players of the past 50 years and Tom was going toe-to-toe with him.

"I think that was when recruiters started to take notice."

Recruiters certainly did start taking notice, even more so when Papley then produced a brilliant finals campaign when back at Gippsland later that year.

"He had one final at Princes Park and in that game he was fantastic, he kicked five I think and that was what sparked our interest," Sydney recruiting and list strategy manager Kinnear Beatson tells ESPN. "It was in that finals that he really lit it up."

Still, the Swans -- and 17 rival clubs -- overlooked Papley 70 times in the 2015 national draft, and he was ignored 13 further times in the rookie draft before the Swans pounced with pick No. 14.

So, how did a young player with such obvious talent, who immediately flourished at AFL level once given a chance, slip so far in his draft year?

McLennan still doesn't really understand why. He worked closely with Papley and saw first-hand how damaging and dynamic the small forward was. He believes Papley's stature, unusual running technique and lack of so-called upside counted against him.

"How he played for Gippsland is how you see him now playing for Sydney - extremely smart, quick to react, great sideways movement," he says. "I think the knock from recruiters was if you actually tested him, he didn't do very well ... [in the] 20m sprint and 2km time trial, he was middle of the road at best, but get him onto a footy field and you saw the real potential of what he could be as a footballer.

"I think everyone was pretty much of the opinion - he was a short, stocky goalsneak and they're pretty easy to get and pretty easy to recycle ... and people maybe thought 'he might be worth a punt but there's lots of footballers ahead of him'.

"He was bow-legged, [with a] long torso [and a] really funny gait, waddles when he runs and had bad knees - [there was] probably the medical side of it too - [recruiters may have wondered] 'how long can those legs stand up to AFL footy'?"

AFL player manager Winston Rous, from Phoenix Management Group, signed Papley as a client midway through 2015. His regular conversations with clubs and recruiters featured plenty of queries about Papley's physical limitations. But there was a big reason why the 178cm forward wasn't leading the pack during running drills.

"A key piece of feedback [during that season] was that Tom was a tad slow for the role and that he was a little bottom-heavy," Rous tells ESPN. "Tom was working as a plumber five-to-six days a week, getting up at 6am and being on his feet all day - it affected his footy and his burst. We advised him to speak to his boss about taking the day off before a game to rest up, and also if it was a Sunday game, to take time off on the Monday to do a proper recovery.

"That really helped him perform well late in 2015, as he was fresher when he played with more zip."

Beatson too remembers worrying about Papley's size and running ability.

"Smaller guys are marked a lot harder, and Tom was up against it a bit," he says. "He didn't have great endurance. That went against him."

Still, the Swans, needing a small forward, were keen. Just not keen enough to call Papley's name out in the national draft, instead taking Callum Mills (pick No. 3), Tyrone Leonardis (51) and Jordan Dawson (56).

"We were really keen on him because we did need a small forward to put pressure on and kick goals - but we only had three picks in the draft and targeted kicking skills," Beatson says.

After the national draft, Papley waited, while Beatson and his Sydney recruiting staff quickly tried to work out a plan to ensure no other club would jump in ahead of them in the rookie draft.

Whether by luck or design, the Swans did indeed get their man and the rest, as they say, is history - Papley made his debut in Round 1, won a Rising Star nomination in Round 6 and played 20 senior matches in his debut season, including the Swans' Grand Final loss to the Western Bulldogs.

The now 24-year-old has booted 146 goals in 99 matches, twice leading the Swans' goalkicking and has cemented himself as one of the league's premier small forwards.

For Beatson, it was just another heart-in-your-mouth moment of cat and mouse that all recruiters play during the drafting process. But he admitted to doing all he could to ensure Papley ended up in red and white.

"We had to set up a few things [before the rookie draft], making a few calls as if we were interested in other players - just to put the wind up other clubs so they didn't (pick Papley)," Beatson says. "You're always trying to position yourself as best you can ... you're not trying to manipulate the draft, but you're trying to influence it!"