In 1974, he moved to England to play rugby league for Wigan. Fairbairn became only the second Scottish-born person after Andrew Hogg to play for the England national rugby league team. Fairbairn won caps for England while at Wigan in the 1975 Rugby League World Cup against Wales (2 matches), New Zealand (2 matches), Australia (2 matches), and France, and in 1975 against Papua New Guinea. He won caps for Great Britain while at Wigan in 1977 Rugby League World Cup against France, New Zealand, and Australia (2 matches). He also played for England in 1977 against Wales, and France. Fairbairn played for Great Britain in 1978 against Australia (3 matches). He also played for England in 1978 against France. He played for Great Britain in 1979 against Australia (2 matches), and New Zealand (3 matches).
At the end of the 1979–80 Northern Rugby Football League season, despite Wigan's relegation to the second division, Fairbairn received the Man of Steel Award for player of the season. Fairbairn played for England in 1980 against Wales, and France, and for Great Britain in 1980 against New Zealand (2 matches). Fairbairn was appointed as a player-coach at Wigan for the 1980-81 season, helping the club win promotion back to the first division. After the club's coaching duties were given to Maurice Bamford at the end of the season, Fairbairn requested a transfer, and was sold to Hull Kingston Rovers for a record fee of £72,500.
While at Hull Kingston Rovers Fairbairn played for England in 1981 against France, and Wales. He also played for Great Britain in 1981 against France. He also played for Great Britain in 1982 against Australia (2 matches). Fairbairn played Fullback, i.e. number 1 in Great Britain's 7-8 defeat to France in the friendly at Stadio Pierluigi Penzo, Venice on Saturday 31 July 1982. With 52 goals, Fairbairn is second in the list of England's all-time goal scorers and with 118 points he is also second (behind Kevin Sinfield) in the list of England's all-time point scorers.