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Wrangling over as Sky and BT finally agree deal to share coverage of new European league

The European Rugby Champions Cup will launch next season, run by the new Swiss-based European Professional Club Rugby, after a heads of agreement on an eight-year deal was finally signed last night after months of wrangling.

The new 20-team competition will replace the Heineken Cup, with revenue distributed equally across Europe's top nations.

Ian Ritchie, the RFU's chief executive, convinced warring broadcasters Sky and BT Sport to forego the law courts and agree a four-year rights-sharing deal that lifted the European impasse.

The top six Premiership and Top 14 finishers this season will qualify automatically for next term's Champions Cup, along with the top seven in the PRO 12. The final qualification berth will be taken by the winner of a play-off between the seventh-placed English and French league clubs, with exact details yet to be finalised

Last night RFU chairman Bill Beaumont hailed Ritchie's role in helping thaw the decidedly frosty relations between BT and Sky. "The RFU, and in particular Ian Ritchie, has invested significant time over the last few months in helping to find a solution to a problem that at one stage looked difficult to solve," said former England captain Beaumont.

"We are very pleased that the challenges off the pitch are concluded so we can enjoy the joys of the game on it, creating more unforgettable memories for players and fans alike."

The English and French clubs gave notice on the previous agreement with ERC and the Heineken Cup two years ago, saying they would quit the competition in the summer of 2014. Grievances over qualification and distribution of revenue were deemed irreconcilable, and that incited a rift across the continent that deepened over time.

Premiership Rugby then signed an exclusive broadcast agreement with BT Sport to screen a new European competition to replace the Heineken Cup. Sky claimed they already held any future rights to the Heineken Cup, and a protracted legal battle threatened to leave European rugby in ruins.

Then RFU chief Ritchie stepped in and managed to convince all parties to see sense, and share out the clear benefits. BT Sport and Sky have agreed a four-year rights-sharing deal, with both parties admitting compromise was in all interests.

ERC chief executive Derek McGrath confirmed he will stand down in October and will not seek a new role with new governing body EPCR.

Allied to a second-tier Challenge Cup, there will also be a new, third-tier qualifying competition. Clubs from lesser-ranked leagues across Europe, and perhaps several national sides, will compete in the Qualifying Competition, bidding to win a place in the Challenge Cup.

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