Everyone knows, or at least will know by within the next few weeks, that every year the Imperial School of Medicine take on the rest of the College in the annual Varsity Matches, with the culmination being the JPR Williams Cup between the two 1st XV sides in front of a packed crowd. For the rugby clubs at least, this is one of their biggest matches and the recent score lines will testify to it, but what was it like before the JPR Williams Cup for the Club. The simple answer is the Sparkes Cup.
Stanley Robert Sparkes joined the Civil Engineering Department in 1934 as a Demonstrator, in Structures, and worked his way through academic appointments to become Professor of Structural Engineering in 1958. As well as being Dean of the City and Guilds College between 1964-1967, he was also the President of the Imperial College Football Club, and it is after him that the competition get’s its name.
Although the College was founded in 1907, the constituent College’s had existed before then and subsequently, so had some of their sports clubs. The City and Guilds College, for example, which was founded in 1876 has had a rugby club since 1898 and the club still exists to this day.
Rugby is one of those sports that you can’t really get away from. Like rowing and football, it is an integral part of any schoolboy’s life, or at least it was back in the day, with the individual making the choice really early one, some times not really deciding on one, but all three. It therefore makes sense that as the individual progresses through the educational system, these clubs would exist at the higher education level and why there is always a lot of history.
At the start of the century, each club used to focus on its own season and they developed their own rivalries; take the Royal School of Mines and their Bottle Match against the Cambourne School of Mines. For 108 years they have been competing on the rugby field for the honour of their mining school. In 1926 a certain group of ambitious mining students decided to ‘borrow’ a 3 foot tall tin beer bottle from the top of a Bass lorry on which they adorned both sets of crests and it has since then been the symbol of the event, and the trophy for the winner of the rugby match
Although not as intense as the Bottle Match, the Royal College of Science has its own annual match, with the club traveling every year to Keble College in Oxford for some light-hearted rugby followed by a night out in Oxford. Even though the other two faculty teams didn’t have such an intense rivalry with another club as the RSM did with Cambourne, each club strived to perform well in their respective leagues, however, as is always the case, there was competition between each Faculty to find out who was the best. This is where the Sparkes Cup came in.
Looking through the archive, it seemed that rugby was very different back then, the obvious conclusion being that the scores were very low, take this  game between the RCS and the RSM:
“The R.C.S.pack led by Smith and amongst whom black bearded Hague was prominent, completely subdued the Mines pack, but having gained possession of the ball little else was done. Although on paper the R.C.S. backline is the most powerful of the three colleges they lacked the thrust necessary to take them over the line.
Edward’s sound kicking was a great asset to the Mines too, on the few occasions when they had the ball were uncertain as to what to do. The only score of the match came halfway through the second half when a loose pass between the Mines halves allowed Jacobson to swoop in to score close to the post with Coppleman converting.”
As the years went on and the importance of the Imperial rugby club grew, this competition, unlike some of its contemporaries, has managed to lasted the test of time and it is still being played to this day. And why shouldn’t it! The RSM are still playing their Bottle match and so need as much practice as possible, the C&G and the RCS are the perfect opponents to play. Similarly the RCS need their practice for the Oxford game and as for the Guilds, well they just like playing a game of glamorous rugby before retiring to the bar. Before any of you start thinking that the Guilds don’t take their rugby as seriously as the other two, in recent times they started their own rivalry, this one against the Paris Institute of Technology.
As a quick side note, have a look at the following Live! story (http://live.cgcu.net/sport/rugby/127). where you will find that not only did the Medical School managed to lose the United Hospitals Cup in 2001, but the also managed to lose to the Guilds in friendly match at Teddington. I’ll be honest here, I seriously doubt if the Medicals put out their 1st XV for this game, but a win is a win!
The Sparkes Cup is one of the few competitions that still exists to this day, with the RSM beating the Guilds team earlier in the year and with the RCS team failing to get enough players for the game against the Guilds (this counts as a Guilds win in my books!!!). Although the Imperial College Rugby Club is now the main focus of rugby at the college, taking up a considerable amount of time, the students still find the time for some inter-faculty rivalry and the chance to try off some moves that they wouldn’t dare try in front of the Imperial Coaches. Long may the glamour, flair and camaraderie of the Sparkes Cup remain.