His own man
It’s almost unthinkable that a club would exclusively own players in the NRL era, but a modern star’s ability to test the market is largely thanks to one man’s selfless efforts.
BY NEIL CADIGAN.
DENNIS Tutty was in the prime of his career when he stood – alone – against the selfish power of rugby league authority with the silent support of a generation of players.
He had no idea his stand would cost him two years of his career, his marriage, give him a stomach ulcer and almost send him broke. Yet his stance in taking the league to court and overturning the model of club ‘ownership’ of individual players sees him remain a champion of athlete’s rights.
There was no players’ association in March, 1968, when Tutty fronted Balmain Tigers boss Kevin Humphreys and asked for a pay rise as his £500 ($1,000) a year contract had expired.
The rule at the time was that a player ‘signed-on’ for a club at the start of his career and was virtually the property of that club until it agreed to release him for a transfer fee – paid to the club, not the player.
His request was refused, and his appeal to the NSWRL failed, so he played the 1968 season on match payments alone and worked as a cleaner at Balmain Leagues Club after leaving his job as a clerk. However, relations between him and the club had deteriorated, so he again approached Humphreys, seeking a release.
Humphreys’ reply was to not only refuse, but to arrogantly poke Tutty in the chest and declare “if you don’t play for us under what we tell you then you don’t play at all”.
Three Balmain team-mates also approached Humphreys for pay increases or releases – future Immortal Arthur Beetson, former Wallaby Peter Jones and utility back Laurie Moraschi – but their requests were also denied and they were given the same ultimatum. Beetson stood down for a few matches but returned, while Tutty, Jones and Moraschi sat out the 1969 season, missing the chance to play in Balmain’s last premiership victory.
Moraschi was released to North Sydney at the end of the season for a $3,500 fee and Jones returned briefly in 1970 but never played first grade again. Beetson was eventually released to the Roosters (for a $15,000 fee) where he won two premierships.
Tutty, then 23 and approaching what should have been his best years, refused to bow to Balmain’s rigid attitude and the league’s rule of exclusive possession. He was introduced to a Sydney solicitor, David McKenzie, who felt there was a strong case to challenge rugby league’s employment rules as a ‘restraint of trade’.
Tutty, with no financial backing or public support from other players, took on the challenge single-handedly at great personal cost. He presented his affidavit to court in May 1969, waited a year for the case to be heard and it was October 1970 before the Supreme Court found in his favour.
However, the NSW Rugby League immediately appealed to the High Court. Short on money as legal fees increased, Tutty, after missing the 1969-70 seasons, was forced to play for Balmain on match payments only in 1971.
In December 1971 the appeal was dismissed and the ‘retain and transfer’ system was overturned. The legal case archived as ‘Tutty v Buckley’ (the NSWRL president was Bill Buckley) was over. David had slayed Goliath – and several other sports used his victory as a legal precedent.
It led to a flood of players becoming free agents and saw the likes of John O’Neill, Ray Branighan (Manly) and Ron Coote (Roosters) leave South Sydney, Parramatta favourite sons Dick Thornett (Easts) and Ron Lynch (Penrith) depart, and Max Brown (Manly) and John Armstrong (Easts) leave Canterbury before the 1972 season.
In essence, Tutty had paid exclusively for their new freedom and wealth – in dollars, exclusion and his own career development.
Tutty played with Penrith for three seasons from 1972 and the Roosters in 1975, but was injured and missed their grand final victory. He had a farewell season, when still a very fit 30, with Balmain in 1976 (with Humphreys having moved on to be the NSWRL and ARL boss in 1973). Tutty then coached the Tigers’ lower grades and had one season with the first grade side in 1980.
For many years Tutty has lived at Forster on the NSW north coast and in 2008 the Rugby League Players Association honoured his selfless defiance via an annual award for a player who displays leadership and a major contribution to the game.
CELEBRATING 100 YEARS OF YARNS
Each week of our 100th year, Big League will reflect on the stories that have captivated and impacted on the great game of rugby league.