Google Rugby-Its A Real Thing

A few months ago we’d posted an update on some of the happenings in NorCal at the league level on social media, but the comments and messages we got were not about the happenings, but that there was a club called Google Rugby!

Yes. There is a club called Google Rugby. It is a thing.  Google Rugby is affiliated with the tech giant Google, but not in the way you think. Most of us have read about the great work environment of Google. That  Google operates in a very non-traditional corporate manner. How it really cares for and support its employees from gyms on site, to great break rooms, flexible work schedules, and the other perks that it provides its staff. So Google Rugby must instantly be positioned to be a top club compared to the rest of the clubs in the bay area with that backing?  

Well if you though that you are…….incorrect. Google Rugby is a rugby club like most clubs, it does have ties with the company which some of the players and members work for but its not Google’s rugby. We’ll explain.

We were able to speak to Peter Danenberg, the founder and president of Google Rugby. Danenberg as you may assume is an employee of Google. When he left Pasadena (where he’d been a member of Pasadena Rugby Football Club) to take a position with Google in Mountain View, California he wanted to continue to play. Now, there isn’t a shortage as he’ll tell you of rugby clubs in the immediate area, but at that time with work, relocating and time he wasn’t ready to jump into a high level/competitive sides that were in his area (at that time there were the EPA Razorbacks, the now defunct EPA Bulldogs, San Jose Seahawks who were all D1 clubs back then). He was seeking something that would be more social (as his time commitment wouldn’t allow him to be training to play at the top level).

Google Rugby posing for photos for their Google Rugby Calendar. Photo Tri Nguyen (2017) 

Google Rugby posing for photos for their Google Rugby Calendar. Photo Tri Nguyen (2017) 

Danenberg admits the thought he had with doing Google Rugby was along the lines corporate clubs in Japan which the team is not just sponsored by a company, but the players are employees of the company. It is that company's club. This is not very common here in the States, but as the game grows and becomes more professional that maybe come more of an option. In the past internationals like Todd Clever, James Haskell, and Shane Williams to name a few have played for clubs in Japan under that model where they are “employees” of the company not members of the club.

“It would be great to see something like that happen here in the Silicon Valley where you can have a Silicon Valley Cup Competition with us, Apple, Facebook, Motorola and others all having teams, that would be something really different and possible” said an excited Danenberg.  The Google club was formed three years ago and their first foray into NorCal rugby as a sevens side playing in the Palo Alto 7s. Then they petitioned to join NorCal as a D3 side and have been playing there the past few years.

Google provides the club with access to its recreational field (the Google Soccer Field) which is walking distance from the corporate headquarters. Access to this pitch is a significant value. “To get access to a nice field in the Mountain View area for practices, games, etc. could cost us in the area of $70k to rent for the year” said Danenberg “having the company allow us to use the field for free is a huge value. We also get a small stipend that we use for kits and operations, but to receive that the club’s ratio has to be 80% employees and 20% non-employees”. We were disappointed to learn that Google Rugby is like all the other clubs who really operates off of player dues and fundraising. So in that regard they are just like the rest of us.  They host a post game social like all of us, to where the running joke has been “where is the social, never mind we’ll just Google it”.

Google’s team does have one to two players from other tech giants like Apple and Facebook, but most are Google staff, and a few non-employees who reside locally.  Because Google is an international company it does have international employees who come to work for the company who have rugby experience noted Danenberg. They’ve had players in their ranks form the UK, France, Australia and New Zealand which provides a level of experience for the newer players. “The challenge has been how to grow our club locally with local players who also work for the company and players who are a part of the ‘club’ and not just guys who come out every so often when free or on game day” said Danenberg. What is impressive to Danenberg is how they are able to play as a team, with having so many players with different backgrounds, experiences and levels of play to gel as one. While the challenge has been as we noted to have players be really a part of the club, the team is moving in that direction this year and the boys are seeing its positive results on the field.

At this time Google is in a competitive NorCal D3 (made up of 12 clubs), which bolsters some quality teams including sides like the Modesto Harlots (as scrappy bunch), Marin REDs, Reno, etc. and while not the dominant power, Google is quickly emerging as one of the top sides in a deep league. This season Google Rugby has secured one of the four NorCal D3 playoffs spots!

Google started as more of a social side and wants to maintain that aspect of the club, but as they grow they are keeping options to some day move up to D2 on their peripheries. Danenberg explained “If you are a player who wants to play a the top level then you are in a great place here in the bay, a player can join Life West, EPA, SFGG, O-Club. If you want that level of play which comes with that level of commitment then there is that option, but at Google we want to play good rugby, but we know that is not our focus; to develop professionals or Eagles, we want to become a solid club, with good social aspects and also quality rugby. Being able to move up to D2 in the future will be a big step for us as a club. We just aren’t there yet”.

NorCal’s D3  is a 12 club competition with teams as far north of Mendocino County and south to Monterrey and east as far as Reno, Nevada. One of their biggest issues is the numbers needed to travel. NorCal has developed super-sites to assist it’s teams whom have to travel sometimes 6-7 hours for a game, but the times when they don’t have the super-sites teams do travel and Google doesn’t always have the depth to do that. “We hope our success this year, making playoffs will increase our numbers. I saw it when I was with Pasadena, winning, going to playoffs really helped us grow numbers back then” says Danenberg. Their goal at the start of the season was to not forfeit any games and just not mess up, they were up for anything else.

Google challenges aren’t limited to travel and numbers but also availability of a pitch during traditional game times. While the club has access to a great field and facility, Google shares the field with the City of Mountain View and thus its many sports leagues (who have access to the field from 9am-8pm). This means that some weekends when there isn’t a supersite their home pitch isn’t available for them to kickoff until 8pm!  Danenberg explained “Its great to be able to play rugby under the lights, but for teams that have to travel several hours to us, who are not local, it is an issue, but costs prevent us from being able to find other pitches to use”.

Google in action. Photo Tri Nguyen (2017). 

Google in action. Photo Tri Nguyen (2017). 

Googles’ growth has also been contingent on systems and coaching. Danenberg said staring the club with him as a player/coach was not just effective (aside from the time strain it placed on him). The club was able to work out coaching. They’ve worked with Dean White who coaches at Menlo who has a 7s focus and which the club hopes to focus on more, as to date their 7s has been totally social.   The club was able to secure Alan Barker as a coach before he left.  Google then got Willeo Bloomfield over the summer to assist and has since stayed on. At this time Dean and Willeo are the current coaches for the club.  Google knows it needs; aside from numbers, more admin focus which includes sustained coaching to continue to build a system and program around.

Once of the great befits of being Google and the area is the visibility. Last summer Google was able to host the USA Eagles before their match against Italy (which was played in San Jose). The club was able to receive training from the Eagles, meet the players and see the work they do in preparation. Many saw very quickly the work that it takes to be at that level, how specialize it is at that level.

Google has also had other challenges some of being a new club, but some of it was their name. Danenberg recalls their first game ever was in the Palo Alto 7s (now defunct) three years ago where they took on the EPA Razorback Bs. The name shocked some and created confusion for the teams that day. “I guess people thought people who worked for Google won’t be ruggers, but there we were” laughs Danenberg. If people have issues with Google (say their Gmail) there is a risk they could take it out on these guys, but over time everyone who plays against them sees them as just another rugby club in a rugby rich environment.

Google Rugby is different in that it is organize by the company’s employees but beyond that they are like your own club, guys who play because in the end they love rugby and love to compete. They work and play like we all do, and for the most part use dues and fundraisers to support their club.  

Danenberg noted there has been some possible interest from some guys at Motorola to maybe follow the Google mode and start a club with their employees, which will only add to the rugby in the bay area, but it will be some time before Danenberg’s dream of the Silicon Valley Cup made up of area company clubs happens.

For now Google is focused on NorCal playoffs hoping to come out of the quarterfinals against the Marin REDs this weekend and secure a spot in the NorCal Finals (against either Redwood Empire or Modesto Harlots) for a shot at nationals.  You can Google them or just visit them at googlerugby.com, follow them on Facebook, etc.

Photos by Tri Nguyen for Tri Nguyen Photography.