TORONTO — Two rugby programs looking to rebuild faced off Sunday with a late penalty giving 13th-ranked Italy a 20-18 comeback win over No. 17 Canada in a scrappy test match.
Newly appointed coaches Mark Anscombe and Conor O'Shea found positives but also plenty to add to their 'to do' lists after a contest with more mistakes than highlights.
"I talked to Mark before the game," said O'Shea, who took over Italy in June. "It's the start for both of us."
Carlo Canna's penalty kick from close range in the 72nd minute proved to be the difference in a back-and-forth game dominated by penalties. Canna was yellow-carded in the 76th minute for a high tackle on Dan Moor, reducing the Italians to 14 men. But Italy held on to kill off the clock.
The Italians finish their June tour at 2-1-0 after beating the U.S. and losing to Argentina. Canada, in its first outings under Anscombe, went 1-2-0 after beating Russia and losing to Japan.
Italy, which has not lost to the Canadians in 16 years, improved its record against Canada to 7-2-0.
The Canadians gave up too many penalties and failed to get their offence into gear, fading late in the heat before 13,125 fans at BMO Field.
"It just shows you only get one or two chances and we didn't take them ... They took their opportunities and just grinded out the win in the end," Anscombe said.
Both teams were missing key players but neither coach made excuses for a game that produced one try and 11 penalty kicks.
Ornel Gega scored a try for Italy while Tommaso Allan kicked four penalties. Gord McRorie, who was good on seven of eight kicks last week in a 26-point performance against Russia, booted all six penalties he attempted for Canada.
Anscombe said he was proud of his young squad, saying his players will come away from the June series a lot wiser.
"There's a couple of fundamentals thing that we let ourselves down in. But in saying that we've got to understand where a lot of these guys are at and how much rugby they've had and the (physical) state they're in," said the Kiwi.
Translation? Many of Anscombe's players were lacking the necessary fitness for test rugby against a fully professional team because of lack of playing time.
Finding a way to cross that gap will be key for Canadian success. While Rugby Canada plans to centralize its domestic players starting next month in Victoria, the program still needs to find them elite competition.
O'Shea, a former Ireland fullback and director of rugby for England's Harlequins, is looking to retool an Irish side that was outscored 224-79 in losing all five matches at the Six Nations.
"We're not delusional. We know the hard work that's ahead of us," he said. "But I also know the talent we have, the talent that's not here (on tour)."
O'Shea, who started his post-match comments in an entertaining melange of Italian and English, said his squad was threadbare at this stage of the tour but praised his young players for their spirit and never-say-die attitude.
"The easy thing for me to do is look at all the mistakes and errors but I want to get these guys enjoying being in an Italian jersey and that's what they look like they're doing."
O'Shea said his side dominated the game and should have won by more. But he wasn't complaining.
"Mentally I actually prefer winning close games," he said. "They're not good for the game but if you win close games you learn more about players, how they react under pressure."
O'Shea was also generous in his praise for Canada, calling Anscombe a great coach.
"I saw what he did at (his former club side) Ulster. They'll be a brilliant side."
It was 9-9 after a choppy first half that saw the team exchange penalty kicks. It was more of the same in the second until Italy pulled ahead 17-15 in the 59th minute via a Gega try at the end of a rolling maul.
McRorie's boot gave Canada an 18-17 lead in the 66th minute.
An Italian go-ahead try in the 69th minute was nullified after review for a knock-on in front of the posts. O'Shea was incredulous at the call, saying the ball was slapped down illegally by a Canadian in the ruck.
The game marked the end of a busy week at BMO Field with soccer Tuesday, CFL football Thursday and rugby Sunday.
The grass on the west sideline, where the CFL benches were for the Argos home opener, looked a little worn three days later. The football yardlines were also slightly visible.
Groundskeepers sprayed and brushed away the rugby lines immediately after the game. The next Toronto FC game isn't until Saturday.
Ciaran Hearn became the 16th player to earn 50 caps for Canada. The 30-year-old centre from Conception Bay South, N.L., spent 10 minutes of it in the sin bin in the 27th minute after being called for a tip-tackle.
Italian prop Lorenzo Cittadini also won his 50th cap.
Hearn was just one of four players in Canada's lineup who started in the 23-18 loss to the Italians at last fall's World Cup. Italy had five starters from that day.
Anscombe will take a Canada "A" team in August to the United Kingdom for games against Doncaster, Glasgow and Ulster ahead of a November test series that includes a date with Ireland in Dublin.
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