The programme will reach over 60,000 school children and 3,000 teachers and coaches across 300 youth festivals in the UK and Ireland and form strong cultural links with schools in South Africa.
In another first, 40 of the schools within the Rugby Festivals programme will be selected to participate in the SOS Kit Aid Programme, affiliated to the International Rugby Board (IRB). These schools will act as regional hubs for other schools in their area, collecting rugby kit which will then be flown to emerging rugby schools in South Africa ahead of next year's British & Irish Lions Tour. As part of HSBC's programme, the chosen UK and Ireland schools will be twinned with South African schools and a series of mini rugby festivals will also take place ahead of the Lions Test matches next summer.
Jason Robinson, who today launched the English Rugby Football Union (RFU) element of the programme at a festival at Broughton RFC in Manchester, will be fronting the initiative across the four Home Unions and South Africa. A network of approximately 300 local community rugby coaches will help co-ordinate the scheme supported by other local Lions ambassadors.
In England, the HSBC Rugby Festivals will incorporate the existing RFU Emerging Schools programme that comprises more than 150 individual events. Young players take part in U-12, U-13 and U-14 categories at local, county and regional festivals before a national finals day staged at Staines RFC. The top teams meet on the pitch at Twickenham, in front of a 40,000 crowd, on the day of the annual Army vs Navy match in May.
As part of the HSBC Rugby Festivals, HSBC will provide schools with kit as well as ongoing tips and coaching via a central grass roots area on the official Lions website - launching later in 2008 here at www.lionsrugby.com.
Giles Morgan, Group Head of sponsorship for HSBC Holdings plc, said: "The HSBC Rugby Festivals have two fundamental elements. First, they are about getting more kids involved in playing the sport and inspiring them through the involvement of the HSBC ambassadors. The support of the four governing bodies has been tremendous and we are all excited about introducing a programme that for the first time encompasses all four nations of the British & Irish Lions.
"The festivals have another important aim of bringing together people from different cultures and countries - something that is at the very heart of HSBC as the world's local bank. By linking schools in the UK and Ireland with schools out in South Africa through SOS Kit Aid, we hope that the children involved will be able to experience even just a fraction of what makes the British & Irish Lions so special."
Jason Robinson, who won five British & Irish Lions caps, added: "I know what it's like to be a school child aiming for the highest level of sport and it is fantastic that HSBC is making such a strong commitment to youth rugby across five countries. It is a programme that will hopefully transform and touch the lives of many youngsters in this country, and I look forward to meeting many of those involved across the festivals over the next nine months."
Andrew Scoular, RFU's Director of Community Rugby, said: "We're delighted that HSBC is supporting the development of the game in this way. The HSBC Rugby Festivals programme incorporates the RFU's Emerging Schools Festival which has grown over the last decade and last year involved more than 50,000 children whose schools previously played little or no competitive rugby. The Armed Forces play a key role in delivering this and staging a memorable finals day at Twickenham each year that provides a superb climax to the season for these young players."