Rugby League Players Association (RLPA) is currently in robust discussions about how much extra money the game’s players should be earning, culminating this past week in claims that the NRL’s elite players could hold a vote to determine if they will boycott the upcoming World Cup.
While opinions for and against are fired across the bow, one can only think that the players could do with a reality check and think back to the man who sacrificed everything – two of the best years of his career, a grand final victory, further Test matches, his marriage, his health and most significantly his wealth – so as to obtain the freedom that players today are taking for granted.
Dennis Tutty was graded by Balmain in 1964, aged just 17, and proved just how good he was by being promoted to first grade. Balmain reached the grand final in 1964 against all-conquering St George, and while the Tigers, like the eight teams in the last eight years before them, failed to beat the mighty Dragons side, Tutty set the record for being the youngest player to appear in a first grade decider.
After the grand final loss, Balmain and Tutty came to terms, with the young back-rower signing a three-year contract with the club, including a sign-on fee of $3,000.
In those days, once a player was registered to a club, that club essentially owned the player. The player could not play for another club, even if an agreed contract had expired. All the club had to do was state that said player would be retained for the next year and the player could do nothing about it.
The only way a player could change clubs is if the club put them on the transfer market. This was known as the transfer and retention system.
In Tutty’s final year at Balmain, 1967, he won a Test jumper, appearing in the first Test against the visiting New Zealand side. Australia won the game, however Tutty was replaced by Ron Lynch for the remainder of the series.
After his contract ended, Tutty asked to be put on the transfer list by Balmain. Being a current Test player, Balmain refused. Tutty then approached the NSWRL Board to see if they could overrule the club’s decision, but they showed no interest. The Tigers then placed Tutty on their retained list for 1968, meaning he had to play for them – despite not having a contract with the club.
In March of 1968, Tutty again requested to be put up for transfer but was met with this brutal but expected response from Balmain secretary Kevin Humphreys: “I am afraid it’s a case of playing for us or no one.”
Three weeks later, Tutty publicly stated, “I’ve given rugby league away. I’ve really had a stomach full of it.” This upset Balmain club officials, however they remained steadfast in their decision to deny him a transfer request.
By May of 1968 it was reported that neither Tutty or Balmain had agreed to terms for the current season, of which Tutty had yet to a play a single game. Tutty, it seemed, was keeping a close eye on legal action that Denis Pittard had launched against his club, Western Suburbs, for refusing to let him move to another club despite not being under contract with them. Tutty did eventually make a verbal agreement with Balmain to play out the year for the club and he returned in reserve grade on the first weekend of May. He was immediately called up to the first grade side the following week, where he played out the season.
At the end of the year, Balmain again listed Tutty as retained.
With Pittard’s case failing to rule in his favour, Tutty became even more determined to change the system. In late January of 1969 it was reported that Balmain now had six players that were unhappy with the club: Peter Jones, Hal Browne, Laurie Moraschi, Gary Leo, John Spencer and Tutty.
Humphreys stated categorically that the club had no interest in speak with the disgruntled players, saying, “There’s no point in seeing the players again.”
On May 24, 1969, Tutty and teammate Jones were joined by Western Suburbs’ John Elford as they appeared in the Equity Court to challenge the NSWRL transfer system. Elford was seeking a declaration that the League’s rules regarding transfers were invalid. He argued that the NSWRL transfer system contained similar provisions to those which had been declared invalid in other countries. It meant that a man could never play for another club until his present club had granted him permission, even if he wasn’t playing any games for any club anywhere.
Elford’s case failed just as Pittard’s had. Meanwhile, Tutty had sat out the entire 1969 season, which also saw him miss out on being a part of the astonishing Balmain victory in the grand final that year against highly fancied South Sydney.
Despite having not played a game since 1968, the Tigers again retained Tutty for the 1970 season.
On May 4, 1970, Tutty this time launched his case against the NSWRL at the Full Equity Court, where he asked them to rule that the refusal of his transfer applications to Balmain were a “restraint of trade.”
On October 2, 1970, the Equity Court finally handed down its verdict. The Full Equity Court ruled invalid and restraint of trade against the NSWRL’s player transfer system. The court ordered a suspension of the orders for 28 days in response to an application by the NSWRL, which claimed that a “degree of chaos” would ensue if the orders were implemented immediately.
On December 9, 1970, the NSWRL were granted leave to appeal against the Full Equity Court’s decision of invalidating the Leagues transfer system.
Balmain again retained Tutty for the 1971 season. Tutty agreed to play for the club during the year.
The League appealed the Full Equity Court’s decision in mid-1971. But on December 13 that year, the High Court ruled unanimously in favour of Tutty, thus upholding the decision of the Equity Court 14 months prior.
Dennis Tutty said of the decision, “I have beaten them. I am free.”
A week later, the NSWRL had come to a decision to replace their transfer system with a player contract system. Many players were off-contract and able to negotiate better financial deals for themselves.
Tutty immediately joined Penrith, where he stayed for three years, before moving to Easts for 1975 and then, somewhat surprisingly, returning to Balmain in 1976 before retiring as a player. He then became Balmain’s head coach in 1980 before stepping down at the end of the year to take on other duties at the club. He was so appalled at the club’s decision to sack Warren Ryan at the end of the 1990 season, that he followed Ryan to the Magpies.
He was also shocked when the NSWRL tried to impose a player draft in 1991, as it was seemingly a return to the system he fought so hard to shut down, where players were forced to play at clubs they may not have wanted to be playing for. That system was abandoned after just one season, thanks largely to Terry Hill.
One man, one very determined man, who sacrificed everything, whose success paved the way for the financial boon that all players benefit from today.
The same players who are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and are seeing genuine wage growth, far better than the overwhelming majority of fans who watch the game.
The same players who are considering to abandon the World Cup, which is not an NRL competition and should not be used as a hostage in these discussions. Perhaps they should realise that if it weren’t for men like Dennis Tutty, they would most certainly be earning vastly less money, with no freedom to find a better offer elsewhere.
****This article appeared on Commentary Box Sports website on August 24, 2017****