George Fairbairn, born and bred in the Borders and a proud product of Kelso rugby union club despite having spent his last four decades south of that dotted line, will be in an Edinburgh hotel today watching to see if Kevin Sinfield, the England captain, scores the 11 points he needs against Wales to take him past Fairbairn's total of 118 points.
So how did a lad from the Borders end up playing for England? It is a story more suited to today's fluid international eligibility situation than that of the mid-1970s. Having excelled for Kelso in Scotland's top flight, Fairbairn was probably third in line for Scotland's No.15 full-back jersey. Not that he was aware how close to selection he was.
"I was just starting to establish myself in Scottish rugby union, playing for Kelso and the Counties team when I started to get inquiries from the top rugby league teams like Bradford, Hull and Leeds," explains the man who is now a pub landlord in Hull and manager of Scotland RL. "But then Wigan made me an offer and they were the stand-out name in rugby league. It was a major decision to leave for rugby league and a big wrench for me to leave the Borders."
It was a arguably the best decision of his life. That was in November 1974. Within a year, he was playing in a World Cup . . . for England. Having immediately established himself at No.1 – full-back in rugby league – for Wigan, Fairbairn was amazed to hear that an English team-mate, Bill Francis, had been selected by Wales. "He told me it was through his grandmother so, when I went home I asked my mum and dad if we had any English relatives. Mum said 'Your grandma was actually born in England'. It turns out she was born in Newcastle and moved to Scotland as a baby. I had no idea."
Within months of moving to England and a new sport, Fairbairn was named in the England squad for the 1975 World Cup in Australia. "I was really pleased because it made me realise I'd made the right decision and it proved to people back home I had too. A lot of Scots got quite a bit of animosity when they moved down to England to play league but there was never any of that for me from the people of Kelso. They were pleased for me."
A prolific goalkicker, Fairbairn knocked over 51 goals in his 16 England appearances, along with five tries and a drop goal. After that World Cup – he faced Wales, New Zealand, France and eventual winners Australia – most of his appearances came against Wales and France in the European Championship before the annual Great Britain series against the Kiwis and Kangaroos. "Being picked for Great Britain was another step up the ladder, another bigger honour as Britain was top of the tree."
Fairbairn's record has lasted for 31 years, primarily because, for much of that time, England only played once or twice most years, if at all, as the nation's elite representative team was Great Britain. All that changed in 2007, when GB was controversially shelved by the Rugby Football League and England became the high point of their representative structure. Sinfield, the captain of Super League champions Leeds Rhinos, has been able to encroach on Fairbairn's total.
Fairbairn managed 17 caps for the League Lions, kicking 44 goals and scoring one try for a total of 91 points. His final international appearance was against the 1982 Kangaroos, known as the Invincibles.
When he moved from Wigan to Rovers in 1981 it was for a world record fee of £72,500. "I remember driving over to Hull before my first game thinking, 'I've got to do well here; they've invested a lot in me'. I was under a lot of pressure but I managed to play my own game." He fulfilled his reputation to such an extent that he was last month voted Hull KR's greatest full-back of all time with 81% of more than 1000 votes cast. "I heard about that; that's marvellous. It shows I must have repaid their investment in me after all."
Fairbairn played at a time when the flow of Scots from rugby union to semi-professional league in England had almost come to a total halt. Borders clubs were dominating the SRU's league and cup competitions and was comparable to the set-up in England's 13-man code in many ways. "Alan Tait came down towards the end of my career but it wasn't like the fifties where there were enough Scots in rugby league to have had a really good international side. If there had been a Scotland team though we'd have had a lot of players with Scottish parents or grandparents who would've been eligible, like today."
He retired long before the chance finally came for Scots to play rugby league for their country. Scotland RL first took the field in 1995 and, tomorrow at Meggetland, face an England side at senior level for the first time, with Fairbairn in the role of team manager, his second such spell with the Bravehearts. Such is the inequality in standard, England field a second-string Knights side – like their Saxons in union or Lions in cricket – who are all Super League star names, regardless. Scotland are building for the 2013 Rugby League World Cup where they will face Tonga, Italy and the USA, the first two games being played in Workington and the latter at Salford's new stadium.
"It's great just to be involved in any shape or form," admits Fairbairn from the training pitch at a freezing Edinburgh University yesterday. "Anything I can give back to Scotland, any way I can help the players, is great for me. I wish we'd had a team when I was at my best but I'm glad I'm not out there now."
As for losing that record today, or next weekend when England play France, Fairbairn is magnanimous in the extreme. "It will actually be great to see Kevin Sinfield beat me. I saw him in the Grand Final for Leeds and he was brilliant. He's a tremendous player and I couldn't ask for the record to go to anyone better."
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