Ritchie 'key' in ending Euro crisis

Andover Advertiser: Toulon won last year's Heineken Cup competition Toulon won last year's Heineken Cup competition

Ian Ritchie's vital peace broker role helped break the two-year deadlock on the future of top-flight European club rugby, according to Bill Beaumont.

The European Rugby Champions Cup will launch next season, to be run by the new Swiss-based European Professional Club Rugby.

A heads of agreement on an eight-year deal was finally signed on Thursday, after months of wrangling on fine print.

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

Heineken Cup governing body European Rugby Cup will now be disbanded at the end of the season as expected.

Ritchie 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.

RFU chairman 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 benefits will be seen far and wide, from the clubs to the supporters, sponsors and everyone who has followed the fabulous mix of high class rugby and good natured rivalry - all played out in many spectacular towns and cities in Europe."

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.

"The game of rugby had to come first and both companies have recognised that by showing a high degree of maturity and flexibility," said BT Sport director Simon Green.

Sky Sports managing director Barney Francis said the deal "offers clarity for European rugby".

"This is a good day for rugby," said Francis. "It enables clubs to plan for the future."

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.

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.

Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty hailed a "historic day for European club rugby".

"The parties have worked hard to get to this point and the uncertainty is now over," he said.

"We still have a great deal to do to ensure both competitions fulfil their ultimate potential.

"Clubs in all three leagues are now battling for qualification and it is only just over five weeks until the play-off for the final place."

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