THERE HAS BEEN TALK of a possible player strike during the upcoming Rugby League World Cup. Those involved in the negotiations could do worse than to remember the story of Dennis Tutty, who sat out the 1969 season over a contract dispute with his club, Balmain.
Tutty's experience is remembered by Ian Heads in The Great Grand Final Heist ...
IN THE SUMMER OF 1968–69, Balmain and South Sydney readied themselves for the challenges of the season ahead to the backdrop of a ticking time-bomb within the game. The drama focused on a Balmain local product, a young man of principle and a tireless back-row forward. He was a cousin of the champion Saint Reg Gasnier, and had played his early seasons as an amateur to allow him to compete as a Kings Cup-winning rower. A greyhound-lean athlete, by 1969 he had played five impressive first-grade seasons with the Tigers, appeared in two grand finals and worn an Australian Test jersey.
Blond and supremely athletic, Dennis Tutty became a crowd favourite along the way.
It was during 1968 that Tutty took the first step to becoming a reluctant hero for all Australian rugby league players of his time and in the future.
Tutty made it clear to Balmain and the rugby league world what was on his mind. Early in 1968, having finished his existing playing agreement with the club, he sought a release from the Tigers. He had received expressions of interest from other clubs. He was told flatly by the Tigers that there was no chance of a release. Says Tutty:
I went and asked for a signing-on fee. I was told by a club official [secretary Kevin Humphreys] that I had to play for Balmain under what they offered me, or I didn’t play rugby league at all. That was the system that existed back then. You weren’t allowed to leave a club unless they chose to place you on a transfer fee. I believed back then I was done a wrong, a bad wrong … and I just wanted to right it.
Tutty eventually agreed to play in 1968, at the request of his coach Keith Barnes. During the off-season that followed, a similar process was played out. This time, Tutty took a stand and chose not to play at all. This decision would cost him what were potentially the three best seasons of his football life, ownership of his car, which he was forced to sell, his chance of continuing as a New South Wales and Australian player, and of playing in a grand final. It also left him with an ulcer and contributed to the breakdown of his marriage. Throughout his period of exile, Tutty worked labouring jobs to keep the wolf from the door.
The proceeds from the sale of his car went towards the financing of the legal mountain he chose to climb: to challenge rugby league’s iniquitous transfer system, an ugly dinosaur of too many years in the game, in the country’s highest courts. The system appeared unfair, but to that point had remained officially unquestioned. Fortuitously, a well-respected solicitor, David McKenzie, a man who held a high-ranking position in the Australian Olympic movement and who believed that Tutty had right on his side, came on board. The first step was to commence legal action against the Balmain club and the NSW Rugby League in the Equity Division of the Supreme Court.
Two leading Balmain players — classy five-eighth Peter Jones, a highly rated rugby union convert, and Laurie Moraschi, a talented utility back from Griffith who had played for NSW at fullback and was the NSW Country player of the year in 1965 — actively supported Tutty’s stand. Both men walked away from Balmain in 1969 in protest at the unfairness of the transfer system, choosing to play no part in the rugby league year. Of all his Tigers teammates, not just Tutty and Moraschi, Jones says today, ‘They were terrific blokes, mate, terrific blokes.’ He would return for a brief cameo of five games with the Tigers in 1970 but then was gone for good. Moraschi came back to Sydney football, enjoying three solid seasons with North Sydney from 1970 to 1972.
During an edgy television appearance with the three players on TCN-9’s World of Sport program in early 1969, Kevin Humphreys quoted the amounts offered to the players for that season: $200 a win and $60 a loss for Tutty; $160 a win and $60 a loss for Jones; $120 a win and $40 a loss for Moraschi. The players expressed their belief that they were entitled to a guarantee. But Humphreys pointed out that, in ‘this day and age of professional football’, his club paid on results.
The question of rising player payments was a major issue in rugby league at the time. At the Balmain RLFC annual meeting prior to the 1969 season, the highly regarded Alec Mackie, a vice president of the NSW Rugby League, told the gathering at Balmain Town Hall, ‘There can be no doubt that increasing costs are creating many headaches in the game.’ Former Tigers treasurer Arthur Toby went further, declaring that ‘the ever-increasing demands of players for increased payments is a matter of grave importance. Deputy chairman Latchem Robinson noted that the Tigers, although not in the first four in 1968, had earned and spent more than $100,000 during the season. In Rugby League World, Bill Buckley wrote of his fear that clubs were ‘operating beyond their means’. When he argued that ‘good things have been done under the transfer system’, the League president was alluding to the concern that if players could move easily from club to club, country to city, state to state, or country to country, the weak would be overwhelmed by the strong. He cited the examples of the post-war ‘poaching ban’, which prevented Clive Churchill leaving Australia, and the ‘retention funds’ of the 1930s, which stopped country clubs pillaging city teams during the Great Depression. ‘The instinct of self-preservation has influenced the NSW League,’ Buckley asserted. On the eve of the 1969 season, Kevin Humphreys spoke of his pride at the fact that of Balmain’s 52 graded players, 32 were local products, backing up an ancient boast of the Tigers: ‘We don’t buy ’em, we breed ’em.’
Balmain’s only current international of the time, Arthur Beetson, eventually became caught up in the conflict. By the end of the 1970 season, Beetson was aggrieved by the terms offered to him by Balmain — a meagre deal based strictly on match payments. Years later, Beetson would tell of a blow-up row between him and Humphreys at Leichhardt Oval.
I was furious and stormed out of the dressing-room. ‘Fuck you … that’s it for me,’ I shouted at Humphreys. Then I said, ‘Kevin, I feel like hitting you on the chin … or words to that effect. I’m walking out of here and you won’t see me again. I would rather retire than be treated like this.’ I walked out and didn’t come back.
Unsurprisingly, Beetson and Humphreys were never close after that exchange. But there remained a shared respect, with Beetson solid in his belief that, notwithstanding what had taken place in their squabble, Humphreys was ‘arguably one of the better administrators we’ve ever had in the game’.
Eventually, Balmain imposed a transfer fee of $15,000 on Beetson, which the wealthy Eastern Suburbs paid. Having been in discussions with the Tigers at a yearly figure of around $3000, Beetson, who by then had a wife and child, found himself on $5500 at Easts, and with some golden years ahead. He told film-maker Graham McNeice in an interview some years ago, ‘I felt I really got underpaid and wasn’t highly regarded. When I left Balmain, I was very bitter because I had some good friends there.’
In October 1970, the Supreme Court addressed Dennis Tutty’s challenge and deemed that the NSW Rugby League’s transfer system was invalid and a restraint of trade. The League promptly appealed to the High Court. In December 1971, the High Court ruled that the League’s retention system was ‘a restraint of trade that was both unreasonable and unjustified’.
Dennis Tutty, the man who took on City Hall, had won. Thanks to him and his committed legal team, headed by McKenzie, the playing field had changed forever for professional rugby league players, who were now able to ply their trade in a much fairer environment. And all of it had been virtually a one-man show. Tutty did not receive a single dollar of support in his fight, which stretched over three years, and little even in the way of thanks or support from fellow players.
Strapped for cash and struggling, he came back to rugby league and played 17 games for Balmain in 1971 with no financial guarantees, just match payments. He would estimate later that the overall cost in potential money he lost from football, plus that which he spent on his legal crusade, ran into tens of thousands of dollars. Delays in payments granted by his supportive legal team helped him get through.
An intriguing sidelight emerged some years later in a note from Kevin Ryan, the admired iron-man front-rower of St George’s great era, who had a fight of his own before he was allowed to move to Canterbury, as captain-coach, in 1967. The former state parliamentarian, local mayor, barrister and advocate indicated opposition to the entrenched unfairness that instigated Tutty’s defiance had been happening in other places in the mid-’60s.
In March 1992, I wrote a column recalling Tutty’s case for the Sydney Morning Herald. In response, Ryan wrote:
Just by the way of history, when I applied for transfer from St George in 1966 I was met by the transfer ban and through Jim Comans (Sydney solicitor) I was taking steps to legally challenge the transfer system when St George relented and put me on transfer. I have always been a great admirer of the courage and determination shown by Dennis Tutty, particularly in the light of the very grave consequences suffered by him as a result of the despicable conduct of some league officials at the time.
Tutty reflects today on the moment of victory after the ordeal he had been through. ‘I had no choice,’ he says. ‘The system was an unjust one and had to be challenged. It was all about that principle.’
He left Balmain immediately after the High Court verdict, playing for Penrith (1972–1974) and Easts (1975) before returning to the Tigers. With the game ‘in his system’, as he puts it, he turned to coaching and administration. He coached Balmain’s reserve-grade side for two years, winning the premiership in 1978 and losing narrowly to Canterbury in the preliminary final of 1979. He then took over as coach of the Tigers’ firsts in 1980, in what proved to be a difficult year.
An essay written in 2008 by Braham Dabscheck, a senior fellow in the faculty of law at the University of Melbourne, captured the essence of Tutty and his place in rugby league, in both the article’s content and its simple, strong headline: ‘Dennis Tutty: An Australian Hero.’ Dabscheck, a former president of the Australian Society for Sports History and an expert on players’ rights in professional sport, has written extensively on the Tutty case.
John Quayle, who in the wake of an excellent playing career with Easts, Parramatta and Australia, would become an effective and well-respected administrator, is a man with a clear view of Dennis Tutty’s place in the scheme of things:
Back then, the League was a strong organisation and there was no real challenge to the way things were. It was just the way the game was run, and as a player you accepted it. Dennis Tutty changed all that. I believe the generations of players that followed should be indebted to him forever for the stand he took. For Tutty to stand up against the administration in the face of all the negativity he copped was incredible. The League was something of a cartel at that time, and I believe they pretty much black-balled him. As for the players, I think a lot just didn’t realise exactly what a committed guy he was or the importance of what he was doing. Reflecting on it now, the players should have stood up and supported him much more than they did. Dennis Tutty was the man who freed up the transfer system, and enabled all players to begin to move and to get fair financial reward for doing something that they really enjoyed.
‘Dennis Tutty’s brave stance changed my life and the lives of many other players,’ said Arthur Beetson. Bob McCarthy describes Tutty as ‘the linchpin’ when discussing the changes to the way clubs negotiated with their players in the ’70s and beyond.
In an interview with Graham McNeice in 2008, champion centre Harry Wells, a hugely popular league man, said he believed that modern-day players owed Tutty ‘everything’. Said Wells, ‘If no one had taken the game on, we’d still be where we were back then. Everybody should be paid fairly for what they do.’
The Rugby League Players Association, representing young men who today benefit from Tutty’s brave stance, decided in 2008 to make an annual presentation in his honour. The ‘Dennis Tutty Clubman of the Year’ award is presented to the person who has ‘demonstrated the same qualities of self-sacrifice and courage as Dennis Tutty to achieve a better working environment for his fellow players’.
When he made his stand, the future for Tutty should have shone with bright promise. But this man of principle chose to take a far darker and more painful path. In the strength of his stance and his quiet determination, Dennis Tutty disqualified himself from the 1969 season and any prizes it might offer. For sure, the Tigers would have wanted such a player on the paddock.