THERE was a time this year with many of us possibly thought The Wire would still be playing at Christmas, given the impact of Covid-19 on the season.

Alas, the craziest of campaigns ended last month and so it is 25 years since Warrington Wolves last played a competitive league game in the month of December.

And Tongan internationals Salesi Finau and Mateaki Mafi, members of their national squad for the 1995 Rugby League World Cup on these shores a few months earlier, arrived as an early Christmas present for fans who were crying out for more cutting edge in Brian Johnson's team.

Johnson's cause had been made difficult due to injuries for backs Jon Roper and Kelly Shelford, while Jonathan Davies' absence was sorely felt too as he returned to rugby union.

So a few weeks after Manoa Thompson joined the ranks, Warrington Guardian handed Finau and Mafi Santa hats and posed them inside a gift-wrapped box for a festive look to Christmas week's back page, and Johnno threw them both into the action straight away for debuts against Bradford on December 20.

Finau, a strapping centre or back-rower, had been one of the stars of the Tonga side that pushed New Zealand to the wire in an epic World Cup contest at Wilderspool.

And Mafi, not selected for that game against the Kiwis, arrived with great hopes having been tagged for his appearance for Tonga in the 200m in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

His background had been in the Tongan domestic rugby union competition and joining Warrington was the beginning of a huge learning curve.

Finau, like Mafi a duel-code international, had been with Canberra Raiders for a spell in the Australian Rugby League when The Wire picked him up.

It was clearly going to take time for them both to find their feet, not only in rugby league's final winter season before the big switch to a summer sport with the arrival of Super League but also in learning a very different lifestyle in harsher weather to what they were both used to.

But there was a need to throw them in and Finau got his first shot on the wing in a 44-34 loss to Bradford at Wilderspool, while Mafi was on the bench.

Warrington Guardian:

Salesi Finau congratulates Toa Kohe-Love on a try against Penrith Panthers in the 1997 World Club Championship. Picture: Mike Boden

Finau was quickly switched to the centres when he wasn't on the bench and Mafi got his first start on the wing at St Helens on January 7, three days after Johnson resigned as coach on the back of Wire's 80-0 thumping by Saints at Knowsley Road in the Regal Trophy semi-finals.

By now Clive Griffiths was in caretaker charge for the final few games of the season and they would go on to have a new boss in the shape of John Dorahy as preparations were ramped up for Super League's start on March 31.

Warrington Guardian:

Warrington's 1996 Super League squad, with Mateaki Mafi and Salesi Finau on either end of the back row. Picture: Mike Boden

Finau and Mafi were partnered together on Wire's left flank for the historic Super League opener at Headingley, which Wire won 22-18 with Mafi scoring the club's first try of the new summer era.

Warrington Guardian:

Mateaki Mafi heads away from Salesi Finau for Warrington in the first season of Super League. Picture: Mike Boden

Another change of coach in 1997, after a poor start to the season, led to Daryl Van de Velde's arrival and Mafi, who was released to Workington, never got to play under him.

Finau completed the season, but it was his last in primrose and blue.

Both ended up back in rugby union, but in the UK.

Mafi continued and finished his sporting career in South Wales, playing for Dunvant RFC, Bridgend RFC and Taibach RFC.

He stayed in the area after retiring in 2004 through injuries.

Bridgend-based Mafi has maintained his competitive spirit as a dog breeder that has led to prize winning at Crufts and he has held a position as a security officer at St David’s shopping centre in Cardiff.

Finau also headed to South Wales in 1998 and went on to play more than 200 games for Llanelli Scarlets over the course of six years.

As well as his success at international level representing the Tongan rugby union side 13 times, as well as featuring with them in the 2002 Commonwealth Games, he appeared in three European Cup semi-finals and won the Celtic League title with Scarlets in 2003.

He had a season at Bath and another at French side Bourgoin before returning to Tonga, where he is understood to have presented a television cooking show called Salsa with Salesi.