While others perceived an improved Canadian performance over last week's win over the U.S. Eagles, the former All Black saw his rugby team pay the price for abandoning its game plan.
"We played into their hands in the second half, well we did in the first half too I thought," said a disappointed Crowley. "We didn't execute what we went out there to do and I think we played to their strengths a little bit."
The Italians feature a strong forward pack and are good at the breakdown. Crowley was upset that his players too often tried to make solo runs or attacked around the scrum rather than spin the ball out wide.
That allowed the Italians to slow the ball down at the tackle, restricting the Canadian attacking options.
The physical game took its toll. Prop Hubert Buydens limped off and Crowley said he would probably be joined at the hospital for X-rays by fellow forwards Jebb Sinclair and Chauncey O'Toole.
"It was a bruising encounter," said the coach. "We'll know more (Saturday) morning on that front."
Kris Burton kicked 20 points as Italy, down 13-9 at the half, rallied for the win before an enthusiastic crowd of 12,220 at BMO Field.
Canada looked solid for much of the evening against an underwhelming Italian team that had an advantage in the scrum but failed to make it pay until the final quarter of the game. Outmanned in the scrum, the Canadians ultimately paid the price for a high penalty count and an accurate kicker.
Canada was still administering big hits on defence and running on offence as the final whistle blew but could not break the Italian defence.
Italy now has won four straight against Canada and leads the overall series 5-2.
"For my point of view, it was a good win," coach Jacques Brunel said through an interpreter. "We knew Canada is a tough team and they showed a strong spirit during the last Rugby World Cup and against the U.S.A. last week as well.
"We knew it was going to be a difficult one so we're happy for the result we achieved."
Conor Trainor scored a try for Canada and James Pritchard kicked three penalties and a conversion
Pritchard's points haul moved him into second place with 424 points in Canada's all-time scoring behind Gareth Rees (491).
Burton, a Brisbane-born fly half who was named man of the match, booted six penalties and a conversion for a young Italian side that often looked starved for ideas on attack. Hooker Tommaso D'Apice added a try.
Italy is ranked 12th in the world, compared to No. 13 for Canada. But the numbers are deceiving in that Italy, as a member of the Six Nations, regularly plays against Tier 1 opposition while Canada doesn't.
The Italians were coming off a 37-22 loss away to No. 7 Argentina while Canada, in its first outing since last fall's World Cup in New Zealand, defeated the 17th-ranked U.S. Eagles 28-25 last weekend in Kingston.
Italy's young starting 15 had a combined 275 test caps between then, with 150 of those divided between prop Martin Castrogiovanni and backrow forward Alessandro Zanni. Brunel started two uncapped players in the backs.
Castrogiovanni, the charismatic Leicester Tigers veteran, captained his country for the first time in his 87th test appearance. He took over as skipper due to injuries to star No. 8 Sergio Parisse and veteran lock Marco Bortolami.
The Italian side included Toronto-born backrow forward Robert Barbieri, who perhaps fittingly caught the opening kickoff from Pritchard.
Canada, missing star lock Jamie Cudmore and fly half Ander Monro among others, also had 275 caps in its starting 15. Lanky flanker Tyler Ardron made his first start for Canada after coming off the bench last week against the Americans.
The Canadians, as is their tradition, left the field after the warmups in a phalanx with players holding onto the jersey of the man in front or beside them.
Pushed after the game, Crowley acknowledged he saw some things he liked.
"There were positives in some of the individual performances. There were positives in that at times when we had a go, we had a go," said Crowley. "We just weren't able to do what we wanted to do. And to be fair, you have to take your hat off to the Italians for not allowing us to."
Canada started well, stealing an Italian lineout early and then going ahead in the fourth minute on a Pritchard penalty. Italy tied it up on the 12th on a Burton penalty kick after a series of slow attacks in the Canadian end.
Both teams had lineout worries early, with Italy losing its first two and Canada its first attempt.
Buydens limped off in the 17th minute, leaving substitute Tom Dolezel to face Castrogiovanni in the scrum.
Italy was knocking on the door in the 23rd minute after a series of pick and drives, but English referee Dave Pearson penalized them, seemingly for not releasing the ball when tackled as an Italian tried to use second effort to cross the goal-line.
A penalty a minute later gave the visitors a 6-3 lead, however. Pritchard tied in the 29th with a penalty kick from just inside the Italian half, defying the swirling winds.
Canada went ahead on an opportunistic try when Italian scum half Tito Tebaldi bobbled a high kick. He went down and tried to pass the ball off the ground to a teammate, only to give it to an onrushing Trainor who raced in for the try. Pritchard added the conversion from in front of the posts for a 13-6 lead after 33 minutes.
The Italian scrum began to dominate as the first half wore on but Italy could not translate that into points, other than a late penalty kick by Burton that made the score 13-9 after 40 minutes.
Another Burton penalty cut the Canadian lead to 13-12 in the 44th minute. And tempers flared as Jason Marshall, a former SFU quarterback turned prop, flung Tebaldi to the ground at the sidelines.
Pearson spoke to both captains as the argy-bargy continued after the whistle.
Italy took the lead in the 51st on a rolling maul off a lineout following a booming penalty kick to the sidelines. D'Apice was the man with the ball as the Italians drove over the goal-line like a freight train. A Burton conversion gave Italy a 19-13 lead.
Pritchard pegged that back to 19-16 with another successful penalty. But Italy's scrum superiority led to penalties with Burton booting another to increase the lead to 22-16. It wasn't until his sixth try at goal that he finally missed.
He was back to perfect for try No. 7, from just a step inside the Canadian half.
Pritchard missed his first kick with less than five minutes remaining.
The Italians defeated Canada handily the last two times they met: 41-6 in 2006 and 51-6 in 2004. Canada's last victory was a 22-17 decision in Rovigo in 2000.
Prior to Friday, Italy had outscored Canada 178-76 with a 17-3 edge in tries.
Canada plays Georgia next Saturday in Burnaby, B.C.