It may have been 50 years ago but Dennis Tutty still clearly recalls the reaction of then Balmain boss Kevin Humphries after he had asked to be placed on the club's transfer list at the expiry of his contract in 1968.
"He poked his finger into my chest and he said, 'if you don't play for us under what we tell you then you don't play the game at all'," Tutty said.
The RLPA honours Tutty with an annual award in recognition of the massive debt of gratitude NRL players and athletes in all codes owe him for his response.
Tutty's courageous actions paved the way for free agency after he sat out two full seasons while enduring a costly court battle against the "retain and transfer" system in place from 1959.
Under Rule 30 of the NSWRL Constitution and By-Laws, Standing Orders and Competition Rules, a player was tied to his club and could not sign elsewhere unless released by transfer or by the club removing him from their list of registered players.
Even if a player was off contract, a club simply had to list him as a "retained" player and he could not play for a rival club, as Tutty and three other Balmain players, including the legendary Arthur Beetson, discovered in 1969.
"Kevin Humphries restricted a lot of us and there were three or four other guys who stood out with me at one stage but they had to go back and play because they needed the money," Tutty said.
"Arthur Beetson stood out for a while and he went back and played, and then they gave Artie a transfer to Easts. They got the transfer money [reportedly $15,000) when it looked like I was going to win my case so they got money for him.
"Laurie Moraschi stood down and he ended up getting a transfer to North Sydney after Roy Francis paid a transfer fee [of $3,500] for him but they wouldn’t clear myself and Peter Jones. [Former Wallaby] Peter Jones never played again."
Tutty returned to Balmain in 1971 to play for match payments while awaiting the outcome of a High Court appeal by the NSWRL after the Supreme Court found the "retain and transfer" system to be an unreasonable restraint of trade.
"I just loved sport and it really hurt me to have to sit out two years," Tutty said.
"They were probably the best earning years of my life but I had to wait the third year and go back and play, which I was allowed to do on match to match basis so it was virtually three years for my life's earnings."
The High Court took three minutes to reject the appeal and the verdict had an immediate impact on the livelihoods of players, with Tutty joining Penrith, Ron Coote moving from South Sydney to Eastern Suburbs and fellow Rabbitohs John O’Neill, Ray Branigan and Bob Moses joining Manly.
"It was in all sports and I didn't realise the implications not only for rugby league but also for Australian rules players, netball and all sports," Tutty said.
"It was a restraint of trade but players have got bargaining power now. It was something a lot of players felt strongly about at the time and when they did get away from their clubs that ended up helping them later in life, to be able to buy their own home outright and things like that."
The RLPA introduced the Dennis Tutty Award in 2008 and the first winner was former Manly prop Jason King, who is now the NRL's GM Elite Competitions.
RLPA GM Stakeholder Relations Clint Newtown received the award in 2013, while 2015 winner Tom Symonds is also involved with the RLPA. James Maloney was the 2017 recipient.
"It's a very big honour for me," Tutty said.
"I never thought anything like that would ever happen but the guys put it upon themselves to do it because, I suppose, they have received the benefits from it whereas when I did it I basically had to do it to make a living.
"The players are more united now and everyone realises that they have gained a fair bit of their rights by being a part of that union. We didn't have anything like that in my day but they have representatives from each club and they get their heads together. I think it is great that they can do that."
The 2018 Dennis Tutty Medal winner will be announced at The Players' Champion awards on Tuesday, September 11 in Sydney.
- 2017 James Maloney
- 2016 Dene Halatau
- 2015 Tom Symonds
- 2014 Nate Myles
- 2013 Clint Newton
- 2012 Robbie Farah
- 2011 Andrew Ryan
- 2010 Petero Civoniceva
- 2009 Michael Gordon
- 2008 Jason King