The Scottish Man of Steel
One of the great fullbacks and goalkickers of the 1970s and 1980s, George Fairbairn was a Scotsman who held England’s all-time points-scoring record until recently.
He played with distinction for Wigan, where he won the Man of Steel award, and Hull Kingston Rovers.
He played in the 1977 World Cup Final and was one of the heroes of Odsal in 1978 when an ageing Great Britain side defeated Australia 18-14.
If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?
Tough one – either Wembley or my first international. I’ll go for my first cap. One of the reasons I switched codes was that I was probably about third in the pecking order for the Scotland fullback jersey. I also qualified for England and was picked for the 1975 World Cup – I was very surprised to be called up because I’d only joined Wigan six months earlier.
We toured the Southern Hemisphere, and it was a huge honour to play alongside someone like Roger Millward, who I later teamed up with at Hull KR. He was such a natural scrum-half and I could read him from fullback. He’d turn and shout a move and suddenly pull it off.
We should have won the World Cup, but we lost to Wales at Lang Park and that proved crucial because there was no final – the World Cup went to the team that topped the group. Wales were very tough, and they had a fearsome pack.
We also played Papua New Guinea on that tour. It was the first time England or Great Britain played them, and it was certainly an eye-opening experience. We stayed in army barracks, which we were told was for our own safety. Everyone was so friendly, and they were great with us, but you still knew it wasn’t wise to walk around on your own. We won 40-12, but we came off battered and bruised because they could certainly tackle, and it was boiling hot.
It was clear Papua New Guinea were here to stay and they became a great addition to the international game.
Were you used to the physicality of that Wales game, having just switched codes?
People said the Wales game was dirty because of their pack, but it wasn’t. We all knew each other and there was no rough stuff. One noticeable difference was that there were few leg tackles in Rugby League – it was mainly upper-body stuff around the ribs and the chest. Tackling in rugby union was straight into the legs.
How strong were Wigan in 1974?
Not as strong as they went on to become! We came second in my first season, but that was as good as it got in my time there. The side was in transition, but there were some great players like Colin Clarke and Bill Francis. They were the days before contracts, so it was winning or losing pay. It was really nice to play for Wigan.
What was Green Vigo like?
He had just signed before me. He was a solid winger. He was naturally fit – very muscular. He was a real character off the field but, because of apartheid, he wasn’t sure if he could socialise with whites off the field. It took him a bit to get used to the fact there was no segregation here. He was a very friendly guy and a great player.
You didn’t win any trophies in your seven seasons at Wigan and were even relegated in 1980. What went wrong that season for the team and what did it mean for you to be named Man of Steel?
It was very hard from the start. We suddenly found ourselves sucked into a relegation battle. Four teams went down, which was too many. The bottom three were never really in contention to stay up, so it was a battle between us and Workington to avoid the fourth-bottom spot. I think it was confirmed after we lost at Castleford with two games still to play. I remember the final game, at home to Leeds, which we lost 20-12. That was a depressing afternoon.
The Man of Steel certainly meant a lot to me personally. To get relegated and still win the Man of Steel is quite something. There were the normal awards like Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, Division Two Player of the Year etc, and back then they chose one of those to be Man of Steel.
With you as player-coach, Wigan were promoted at the first attempt in 1980-81, a season best remembered for Fulham beating you in their first-ever match.
Fulham had a very good squad, and it was a tough place to go to. It was strange because, while it was their first game, it was our sixth game of the season. It was a big occasion. Fulham were strong and they beat us comfortably.
I enjoyed the player-coach role, but it was really nerve-wracking because we had to go straight back up. We got back on the rails after the defeat at Craven Cottage. It was tough because we’d never been in the Second Division, and we had to work hard. We finished second and it was a big relief to be back in the top flight, but Maurice Lindsay brought in Maurice Bamford as coach, which I found disappointing because I wanted to remain player-coach, and I went to Hull Kingston Rovers.
You played in another World Cup two years later, this time with Great Britain, and lost the final 13-12 to Australia in Sydney. Do you remember your coach’s post-match comments?
Ha – yes, David Watkins said they wouldn’t beat us for years! I played alongside David in the 1975 World Cup, and he was also an excellent coach. When you only lose a final by a point, the optimism is understandable.
I remember the Aussies beating us in Brisbane in the group game and we just weren’t good enough that day. The final was closer, but they still deserved it. It was a really good game, very open and physical, but they could have won it by more.
You did beat the Australians once more – in 1978 at Odsal.
It was great to beat them at Bradford. We always felt we could win because we had a very positive mindset. They had so many excellent players, so it was a real achievement. It levelled up the Ashes series, but unfortunately we lost the decider at Leeds.
I was initially left out of the 1979 Lions Tour, but went over after a fortnight when John Woods got injured. The Aussies had just gone full time and that was probably the start of them pulling away from us. It made a big difference and we saw it by 1982 when I played my final international. I loved my Test career – it was such an honour to play for England and Great Britain.
By this time, you’d moved to Hull KR after a record transfer fee.
When Wigan put me on the transfer list, the phone kept ringing and I signed with Rovers. Roger Millward was their coach, and they paid £72,500 for me – a world-record fee. It put pressure on me, but I had the whole of pre-season to get used to it rather than just being pitched into a game in the middle of a season. The price had nothing to do with me.
I joined a great team and played alongside John Millington, Steve Hartley, Mike Smith and Len Casey. There were some great times. We gave the 1982 Kangaroos a great game and led them at half-time. The crowd loved games like that. It was a full house with an electric atmosphere. The team was superb that day. We led at half-time and were well up for winning, but the Kangaroos came back, and you could see what a team they were.
Queensland, captained by Wally Lewis, toured a year later and we were the only team to beat them. That was a great day. We had the same attitude that we were going to win, and this time we did it. We had an excellent team. It was so tight that day, and defences were well on top, but we just had enough class in the end.
How much did Wembley 1986 hurt?
It’s one of those games that still haunts a bit. We lost 15-14 to Castleford but could have won it at the end. We weren’t at our best, sadly. It was horrible to lose at Wembley. The missed conversion still sticks in the mind. John [Dorahy] was the regular kicker by this time but it was just one of those things.
Did you enjoy coaching Rovers between 1991 and 1994?
I was coming to the end of my career. Roger had moved on and the club asked me if I wanted to do it. I’d enjoyed the Wigan job for that one season, so I said yes. It was hard coaching players I’d played with – on and off the pitch. Telling players what to do is one thing, but you’re still wanting to go for a pint with them. I think I did okay, but there’s so much to coaching with all the off-field stuff and the media commitments.
You coached Huddersfield in the 1994-95 season when you set the all-time record win, beating Blackpool Gladiators 142-4.
That game just flew past – it just went at a hundred miles an hour. Greg Austin scored nine tries! It was a bit of a farce, but it was still nice to have the record – until 2018 anyway.
How did you enjoy coaching Scotland in the 1995 Emerging Nations World Cup?
That was a wonderful experience. It was difficult because there were players I’d never seen before. We beat Russia and America but lost to the Cook Islands, so we didn’t qualify for the final. We’d never seen any of our opponents. The Cook Islands were a very big side and deserved to win. I coached Scotland again in 1997 and I spent time with the squad during Steve McCormack’s time. The 2013 World Cup was a real highlight.
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