Russell Fairfax – rediscovering one of the “free spirits” and an interview to boot!
Following from my recent article about inspirational coach Geoff Mould I want to focus on one of his protégés at Matraville High School, the precociously talented Russell Fairfax.
With a philosophy of running rugby, it was no wonder Fairfax exemplified this attitude. Mould moved him from flyhalf to fullback where he was a sensation on the Australian Schoolboys tour of South Africa in 1969. Mould regarded Fairfax as the best player he ever coached, saying “whereas there were three Ellas and the whole was greater than the three parts, there was only one Fairfax.”
Recalling the words of Elton John; “and I would have liked to know you, but I was just a kid”, my knowledge and experience of Russell Fairfax are just vague memories of this silky player. Through research and anecdotal quotes, a quite brilliant player was unearthed. A fan favourite with his long, flowing blonde hair, good pace, terrific swerve, security under the high ball and capable tackling – he had it all.
The golden-haired boy who played for Sydney as an eighteen year-old sixth former who needed permission for leave to play while at school. Fairfax was “an exhilarating runner of great flair, to appreciate what union missed, his first four seasons of league in 1974/77 encapsulates all that was brilliant about him”.
Yes, as with Michael O’Connor, his time in rugby union was all too brief with only eight Tests for the Wallabies from 1971 to 1973. He lit up the rugby world like how Mark Ella and David Campese would do in following years.
Russell Lance Fairfax was born in Sydney NSW in 1952, but grew up in Sorrento, Victoria with his army-based father, playing Australian Rules. They then moved to Ipswich, Queensland where he played rugby league before another move to Sydney, where he attended Matraville High. Fairfax played league in his younger years before joining the Randwick rugby union club.
His flair was noticed and he was selected for the Junior Wallabies against the Springboks in 1971, then a Test debut against the French under coach Bob Templeton. He partnered John Hipwell in his Test debut on the tour of France. Injury disrupted his 1972 season when he toured New Zealand with the infamously named “Woeful Wallabies” side, but he made the tour of Wales, England and Italy in 1973.
Fairfax broke the devastating news to rugby union he had signed for the Eastern Suburbs rugby league club, making the Roosters his new home in 1974. The new club met with instant success when they won the premierships in 1974 and 1975 and Fairfax became a crowd favourite.
Honours for Sydney and NSW followed and he seemed certain to be selected for Australia in rugby league. However, he suffered a career influencing broken leg in 1975 at the peak of his powers. He may not have been the same player again as he was in his debut season. Russell played in the unofficial World Club Challenge against St Helens in Sydney, scored a wonderful try in the 1977 Amco Cup against Wests then joined South Sydney in 1981 as his career began to fade.
A stint as coach in 1990 for Easts came to an unfortunate end when he was sacked after losing 23 of 36 matches. He was named in the Sydney Roosters “Team of the Century’ from players who represented the club from 1908 to 2000.
Fairfax was a physical education teacher in the 1970s, but after retiring from professional sport he joined Fox Sports as a commentator, where he excelled. In 2017 he also stood as a councillor for the Randwick City Council.
Fairfax is married with two children and in 2014 had intensive surgery for a brain injury, stating he was “lucky to be alive” with the hospital bills and intense rehabilitation also putting financial pressure on him.
I know more about Russell Fairfax than I did a week or so ago and all that I have heard is complimentary. A gifted player who brought excitement to rugby as few players do, those with unique talent, a maverick style and bravery to express themselves, the Campese’s, Spencer’s, Cullen’s and Ella’s of this world. The free spirits. Russell Fairfax fits right in.
I was able to conduct a brief interview with Russell Fairfax via Roar member sheek, with generous assistance from him, Russell’s partner Sharon and of course Russell himself, to whom I am grateful.
What influence did Geoff Mould have on your playing career?
Enormous. He was my schoolteacher, rugby coach & life mentor. He remains a close friend. We had dinner with him recently. He had an extremely positive personality.
Who were the inspiring Rugby Union or Rugby League players you looked up to when young?
Ken Catchpole (Union) and Arthur Beetson (League).
What is your involvement with union and league today?
I remain members of both clubs – Randwick Galloping Greens & Sydney Roosters. I regularly attend functions, both personally and for sponsors. I am also an unofficial mentor at both clubs.
Was it an easy decision to switch to Rugby League?
No, extremely difficult. My family was working class and I did it to support them. I switched for financial reasons -keep in mind rugby union was amateur back in the 70s.
Are there any union or league players today who are “free spirits” like yourself, Mark Ella & David Campese?
Unfortunately, none in union at the moment. In league, James Tedesco despite his responsibility load, and Sam Walker for his youthful enterprise.
How is your health?
in the main, okay. I turn 72 this year and I’m still enjoying life. I do a lot of walking, playing golf & now I have a granddaughter to dote on.