The Best of the Day preview takes the first hit-up with NRL tips for a crunch Friday night clash between finals contenders Penrith Panthers and Cronulla Sharks.

NRL Tips – Penrith Panthers V Cronulla Sharks

19:50 (AEST) @ Penrith Stadium, Sydney

History: Played: Cronulla 51 V Penrith 38 (3 Draws)

Last meeting: Round 6, 2019: Cronulla 24 d Penrith 20 at Shark Park

Final Thoughts: The Best of the Day preview breaks down a huge encounter between the Penrith Panthers and Cronulla Sharks that will have a major bearing on both clubs’ Top 8 prospects.

Both sides have 9-10 records and have experienced a potentially season-defining change of fortunes in the past fortnight.

The Panthers pieced together a remarkable seven-match winning streak to surge into the Top 8. But after a home loss to red-hot Canberra in Round 19, they inexplicably went down to second-last Canterbury 16-8 last weekend courtesy of a woeful display.

The latter loss saw Penrith drop to 10th. Compounding matters, linchpin James Maloney was suspended for tripping. He has been replaced at five-eighth by teenage debutant Matt Burton.

The Sharks were on the ropes after five consecutive losses. But a 16-14 breakthrough win over North Queensland fed into a rousing 39-24 defeat of heavyweights South Sydney.

Wade Graham’s return had a monumental impact on Cronulla’s play against Souths, while enigmatic types Shaun Johnson and Josh Dugan are finding form. Matt Moylan (concussion) has been ruled out, which sees Dugan move to fullback and Sosaia Feki rejoin the three-quarter line.

Panthers bitten by Sharks hoodoo

Cronulla have proved an insurmountable bogey for Penrith in recent years. The Sharks have won 10 of their last 11 against the Panthers, including the last seven straight.

An incredible eight of the last 13 Sharks-Panthers showdowns were decided by four points or less – including a Johnson-inspired 24-20 Cronulla home win earlier this season.

The Sharks are 3-7 away from the Shire this season and have lost their last four away. The Panthers have won four of their last five at Penrith.

But a lack of attacking impetus – which will be exacerbated by Maloney’s absence – shapes as the hosts’ biggest obstacle. They have scored 20 points just twice in their last 13 games.

With Graham, Johnson and Bronson Xerri in great touch and the Sharks’ pack starting to reassert their dominance, the visitors should again finish the weekend in seventh.

Tip: Margin – Cronulla 1-12 @ $2.88