Paul O'Connell is now the pride of Limerick
'It is a great honour for our family. We are delighted and thrilled -- amazing'
IT was only the stuff of dreams when he first started playing rugby on the fields of Limerick.
But green giant Paul O'Connell completed a remarkable 21-year journey yesterday when he was crowned Lions King in London.
The Ireland and Munster forward will lead a record 14 Irish Lions who will dominate the squad when they take on the mighty Springboks in South Africa.
His proud parents last night struggled to express their feelings as their 6ft 6in 'baby' son was chosen to lead the Lions against the world champions in South Africa at the end of the month.
"It is a hard feeling to describe. What words can you use," his mother Sheila told the Irish Independent.
"It is a fantastic honour for our family and for Limerick," said Michael, who played with Sundays Well, in Cork, before moving to Limerick 42 years ago.
"It is great for Ard Scoil Ris and Young Munster, who supported him all along. We are absolutely delighted and thrilled. Amazing," he added.
The captain's parents recalled their 29-year-old son's early obsession with sport.
His father brought him to Young Munster to play rugby with the under-eights before he won underage medals with South Liberties GAA club.
By the age of 16, Paul was playing golf off a four handicap. Two years later he earned his first Irish schoolboy rugby cap.
"He received his first school cap in Thomond Park against Scotland. It is at home, framed," Sheila added.
Paul's girlfriend, Emily O'Leary, from Mungret, brothers, Justin (36) and Marcus (31) and the extended family from Ballinlough, Cork and Croom will gather this weekend for "a quiet celebration".
His parents have also made early plans for the South African trip.
"There is the two of us going and maybe a few friends. We will take in the last three tests. It would be a long trek to be out there for the six or seven weeks," Michael said.
The O'Connells last night toasted the remarkable Irish achievement with Paul's clubmates at Young Munster.
They were joined by the equally proud parents of rising rugby star Keith Earls, who at just 21, was one of the surprise choices for the marathon tour, which starts on May 30 and ends on July 4 with the third test in Johannesburg.
Champagne bottles were uncorked and choruses of 'Beautiful, Beautiful Munsters' rang out late into the night.
Keith's parents, Ger and Sandra Earls, were celebrating with their daughter, Jenny and close friends throughout yesterday. Ger is a well-known former Young Munster player.
"It's hard to fathom it. We grew up looking at these tours on TV. His name was thrown around for the last three to four weeks and he was hoping as every young fella would," Ger told the Irish Independent.
Father and son watched together as the Lions squad was announced yesterday.
"I was sitting with him, myself and my brother-in-law. All we heard was the name Keith and we just started jumping around the house, we never even heard 'Earls'. We just took off from that, jumping around the house," Ger added.
"Everyone is keen to go [to South Africa]. We'll see what happens now. It is unbelievable."
It has been a remarkable journey for the young Lion. He burst onto the international scene last November when he scored a try on his debut for Ireland against Canada.
The 21-year-old did not feature in his team's Grand Slam heroics, but has earned huge plaudits for his displays for Munster in this year's Heineken Cup campaign.
Now he is preparing to do battle with the fearsome world champions, but his supporters last night said would not faze Keith.
"Keith will have his claws bared for the Springboks," Richard McCarthy, from Ballysimon, predicted.
It was also a special day for well-known Limerick publican Jerry Flannery, who also saw his 30-year-old son and namesake selected for the tour.
"It is a tremendous honour and privilege for him and Limerick," Jerry said.
Limerick will be represented by no fewer than four players on the Lions squad with the selection of David Wallace.
They are joined by Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Tomas O'Leary, Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe, Alan Quinlan and Donnacha O'Callaghan.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen last night led tributes to the latest achievements of Ireland's rugby heroes.
"Paul O'Connell can be rightly proud of his achievement as he takes his place among Irish rugby legends who have previously led the British and Irish Lions."
Irish Rugby Football Union President John Lyons also passed on his congratulations to the Irish players.
"It is wonderful news for the game in Ireland to have such a strong representation in the touring party coming on the back of this year's historic Grand Slam," he said.