Crusaders loss brings familiar worry for New Zealand rugby players

New Zealand rugby fans have that same old, nagging feeling creeping back, the one where their team fails to play up to its reputation.

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The portents must be ominous for New Zealand rugby union fans.

Just months before they hope that hosting the World Cup will help shed their tag of chokers, the nation's top provincial team, the Canterbury Crusaders, lost a high-pressure game on Saturday they were expected to win by a narrow margin.

Sound familiar? Worryingly so.

Despite being the favourites for virtually every World Cup since they won the trophy in 1987, the All Blacks have fluffed their lines, with only one losing appearance in a final to show for their effort.

They reached their nadir four years ago when they crashed out to France in the last eight. Dan Carter, the All Blacks fly-half, even said the pain of Saturday's five-point defeat to the inspired Queensland Reds was similar to the defeat they suffered at the hands of the French in 2007.

The Crusaders side will form the backbone of the New Zealand team and given the fact they have travelled 96,000km in four months as they have had to play all their games away from home, it is no wonder Graham Henry, the national team coach, will rest some of his leading lights for the Tri Nations series.

Richie McCaw was not at his scavenger best against the Reds while Carter was strangely subdued. Henry will be glad he can call in Keven Mealamu, the Auckland hooker, instead of the Crusaders' Corey Flynn, who got the yips at the line-out in the final. Fans will be hoping it doesn't spread like an epidemic.