Hooker Ornel Gega scored two tries as Italy overpowered the US to claim a bruising 24-20 victory in a one-off rugby Test match on Saturday.
Gega crashed over for tries in each half as Italy’s superior forward power proved decisive against the Eagles at San Jose’s Avaya Stadium.
The US, beginning to build towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup under the guidance of former New Zealand coach John Mitchell, fought back to within one point after replacement Tony Lamborn dotted down for a late converted try.
However, Italy, who are also rebuilding under new coach Conor O’Shea, held on to secure a gritty victory in sweltering conditions in northern California.
The match started evenly, with US flyhalf A.J. MacGinty and Italy counterpart Carlo Canna trading early penalties.
However, the Eagles moved into a 10-3 lead when a superb break from fullback Will Holder ended with Canna being adjudged to have killed the move with a deliberate knock-on. Canna was sent to the sin-bin and the Eagles were awarded a penalty try, which was converted by MacGinty for a 10-3 lead.
Italy responded with a determined forward effort and began to make their dominance felt at the set-piece.
Awarded a penalty within kickable range, Italy opted instead to go for the corner and from the ensuing line-out, Gega rumbled over for a try.
Luke McLean missed the conversion, but Italy moved into an 11-10 lead just before halftime after Canna returned to the field to kick a penalty when US skipper Todd Clever infringed at a scrum.
Canna then drilled over a drop-goal to make it 14-10 before MacGinty kicked another penalty to draw the Eagles back to 14-13.
However, Italy’s forward power came to the fore midway through the half when Eagles forward Cam Dolan was sin-binned.
Italy made the man advantage count, once again opting for a lineout at close range. Once again, the outcome was the same, a perfectly executed rolling maul that ended with the Albanian-born Gega burrowing over for his second score.
Canna’s conversion made it 21-13 and Italy were in command.
In the 69th minute, though, the US produced their best move of the night, when a lovely break by MacGinty inside Italy’s 22 saw him split the defense before offloading to Mike Te’o who fed Lamborn for the try.
MacGinty converted to set up a frantic finale, but a late penalty by Italy replacement Guglielmo Palazzani saw the visitors home.
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