Quinnell spent two hugely-successful seasons with Wigan, winning league and cup trophies and becoming a dual code international despite having had no previous experience of rugby league.
But despite his massive popularity and his growing reputation up north, Quinnell returned to union in 1996 - and the Lions were at the heart of that decision.
"The biggest change was when I got asked to come back to rugby union in 1996," Quinnell, who signed for Richmond on his return to the 15-a-side game, said in an exclusive interview with lionsrugby.com.
"One of the reasons I came back was to be able to play for the Lions in '97."
Quinnell says he had had no contact with Lions coaching staff or committee members and was certainly given no guarantee that his return would result in selection for the following year's tour of South Africa.
And although there was a great deal of uncertainty and undoubted risk attached to his decision, Quinnell admits that the lure of a possible Lions spot was simply too strong to ignore.
"I just took a punt," added the now 36-year-old.
"I was in the pre-Great Britain Rugby League squad that was training for a tour to Australia and I had a decision to make as to whether I stayed and tried to get on that one or whether I came back and tried for the Lions.
"The tradition of the Lions from a rugby union man's point of view was overwhelming."
Quinnell's decision was vindicated in '97 when he earned selection for the first Lions tour of the professional era. Lions coaches Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer and team manager Fran Cotton believed the returning Welshman would make a real impression in South Africa and Quinnell did just that.
Then 24, Quinnell was one of the most-prominent performers on tour as the Lions warmed up to face the world champion Springboks before the need for a double-hernia operation forced him to withdraw prior the start of the Test series.
And while the Lions went on to record historic victories over the Boks in Cape Town and Durban, Quinnell missed out knowing that his chance of being involved in one of the most iconic series in Lions history had been cruelly taken away from him.
"It did end in disappointment," explained Quinnell.
"I had injections and painkillers and anti-inflammatories to go out and continue through the tour but, unfortunately, it didn't last.
"It's one of those situations where I probably could have lasted another couple of weeks and made it worse and worse but I didn't want to distract from what the Lions were doing. If I played, I couldn't play at 100 per cent. You've got to justify to yourself and to everybody else why you can't do that.
"The Lions jersey is special and that badge is not for me to take advantage of. I'd rather have stepped aside and gone home and had the operation rather than let someone down at a vital time.
"I was struggling with training and playing and the decision was made to step aside. It was one of the hardest of my life. To hold your hands up and say that you've failed and that your body has given up in you and then sit at home and watch it on television was one of the hardest few weeks of my life."