Wide-eyed and struck by the sight of Ireland players Keith Wood, Paul Wallace and Jeremy Davidson figuring in the Test side against the Springboks, junior swimming champion O'Connell, now on the cusp of his own greatness with the 2005 New Zealand-bound Lions, wants the "ultimate achievement."
The Drombanna, Co. Limerick man said: "After you play for your country, making the Lions team becomes the ultimate achievement. Once I'd first been capped in 2002 I looked at things differently.
"The 1997 tour was the first one I really noticed. I was playing senior rugby in school and not taking it that seriously.
"But the Irish players caught my eye. For me Jeremy Davidson was player of the tour with his fabulous work-rate.
"He set the standard for second-row play and I went on to play against him two or three years later. Keith Wood and Paul Wallace were top guys as well."
Mouted as a possible Lions captain this year, perhaps in the ilk of '97 general Martin Johnson, who surprisingly had not yet skippered England back then, O'Connell hailed the "Living With The Lions" video as "marvellous."
"It was great to watch because you saw the passion in the changing-rooms before the matches. It was such a successful tour. The boys' elation after winning the Test series was there to see.
"They all bought into the Lions concept and it left me thinking I want to be a part of that."
O'Connell is under no illusions as to how difficult it will be to nail down a place in Sir Clive Woodward's Lions Test side. Yet if he displays the same work ethic, power, passion and athletic ability that has seen him hit the heights with Munster and Ireland, it should be within the 6ft 6in star's grasp.
"It will be unbelievably hard to get in the Test side. Malcolm O'Kelly is in great shape, Donncha O'Callaghan is looking strong while Danny Grewcock and Ben Kay have won the World Cup. There are five good guys going for two positions." O'Connell added.
Former Ireland Lions hooker Wood knew what he was talking about though when he famously said: "Things happen when Paul (O'Connell) joins a ruck or maul."