Jun 7, 2024

Rising Star: South African Goalkeeper Cullin de Jager Eyes World Cup Glory

Rising South African indoor hockey goalkeeper Cullin de Jager is excited about the journey ahead after the men’s national team secured their World Cup spot for 2025 by finishing runners-up in the recent African Cup of Nations tournament in Namibia.

Despite losing in the final to the host nation in a penalty shootout, the 23-year-old De Jager, who lives in Johannesburg, said they had achieved their primary goal of qualifying for the international event in Croatia next year.

The South African men’s team powered by Tops at SPAR were joined for the World Cup by the national women’s team, who won their first African title in 10 years when they defeated Namibia in the final in Swakopmund, also in a penalty shootout.

Even though there was a sense that they had let themselves down in the final to an extent after beating Namibia in a pool clash, De Jager said there were plenty of positives to take out of the continental showpiece.

“Of course, you want to win and be crowned the champions of Africa, but our main goal was to qualify for the World Cup,” he said.

“As a team we have a dream of medalling in the world tournament so to qualify for that, we are more than happy with the bigger goal in mind.”

Adding to his growing reputation as a shot-stopper of note, the Southern Gauteng player was named the goalkeeper of the tournament, continuing a remarkable run of success in the last line of defence.

In two other major indoor events he has been involved – the SPAR SA interprovincial in 2022 and 2023 – De Jager also received the goalkeeper of the tournament accolade.

He is understandably proud of his efforts but is astute enough to know that hockey is a team game, and it is how they gel as a cohesive unit that remains the bottom line.

“It definitely is an amazing honour, but the main thing is that that the team comes first and if I can do my job well, then the team obviously has a chance of doing well,” De Jager said.

“I did feel I had a good tournament and it proved to me that I have the ability to handle what happens on an international stage, and I will use the experience and confidence I have gained going forward.

“In Namibia, I felt incredibly locked in on what I needed to do for the team and felt comfortable about not conceding a goal during open play.

“But I realise we need to continue looking at our defensive systems during penalty corners because I felt we conceded a few too many goals in that department.”

His status represents a remarkable journey in the sport in which he has progressed from being an unknown at school to play interprovincial hockey for Witwatersrand (Southern Gauteng B) before graduating to the provincial premier side.

And he stumbled on the goalkeeper role by chance.

“It has been a bit of a rocky road,” admitted De Jager, “because I went to a relatively small school (Maragon Private school, now Crawford Ruimsig International) and wasn’t really recognised during that time.

“When I started playing hockey in Grade 6, I was in the outfield as a striker until about Grade 9.

“Then one day a team at school needed a goalkeeper so I put on the kit just for the fun of it. But then I started playing more consistently and realised I had the talent for this.

“I think the big thing for me was that I was never scared of a hockey ball and that is massive for a goalie, because if you are, it’s not going to work.”

Although De Jager never gained much experience at school, once he left, he started challenging for a place in the provincial teams, working his way up to the Southern Gauteng side and eventually the national team.

He was included in the SA squad for the Kathea Energy Nkosi Cup in Cape Town last year, but never got onto the pitch and only made his debut in the African Cup in Namibia.

Yet he has quickly made his mark and a willingness to learn from that experience, plus a strong work ethic, could see him become a pivotal figure in the national team’s bid to make an impact in the sport’s top echelons.

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