Coach Neville, who confirmed her intention to step down after the tournament, rallied her team for one last time, less than 24 hours after their painful three-goal defeat to New Zealand had dashed hopes of appearing in a home world final in Liverpool.
An evidently emotional Neville, who did not rule out returning to the national set-up in a different capacity in the future, paid tribute to her players after a slick 58-42 success which only served to accentuate the painful sense of what might have been.
Neville said: “The girls were absolutely gutted after the semi-final and so was I. We didn’t deliver the performance that we had been doing through the tournament, so to turn it around overnight was absolutely phenomenal.
“I am just so pleased with the way they came out and showed the culture of the team and the fact that one game doesn’t get them down. That is a massive plus for this team.”
Gone was the error-strewn performance against the Silver Ferns as Neville’s team established a two-point lead at the end of the first quarter and continued to build their advantage against a team whom they had beaten by nine points earlier in the tournament, one who pushed Australia agonisingly close in their own last-four clash.
Goal shooter Helen Housby finished with a perfect record of 29 goals from her 29 attempts as the South Africans, despite the return of influential wing attack Bongiwe Msomi, who missed much of the first game due to injury, were cut adrift by seven points by the half-way stage.
With the match safely won, influential captain Serena Guthrie was cheered when she was replaced with two minutes remaining, and she shared a lingering hug with Neville at courtside.
If the final medal colour was the same as it has been since 2011 for England, those raucous final moments served to illustrate just how far Neville has brought her squad, and the domestic sport as a whole, since she started in the role four years ago.
With most of the squad keen to take a break and some, including Jade Clarke and Geva Mentor, unlikely to feature in the defence of the Commonwealth Games title in Birmingham, Neville leaves her successor with both a rich legacy and a mighty rebuilding task amid such heightened expectations.
“This will be my last one for the moment,” confirmed Neville. “I do need to take a career break. I have got some personal goals I want to achieve, and while I am in this role I am not able to achieve that.
“However, I have been a part of this system for 20 years and I want to be part of it again. I don’t know in what capacity, because hopefully the next coach that comes in will take the baton and continue this roller coaster.”
With a total of over 100,000 tickets sold for England’s matches throughout the tournament, the frustration felt by the players in failing to reach what would have been their first World Cup final since 1975 is eased by the palpable evidence of the unprecedented health of their sport.
Goal shooter Jo Harten, who shrugged off a personally disappointing semi-final to top-score with 29 against the South Africans, said: “I think we’ve gone to another level – not just this week but in the last 18 months, we’ve lifted the game and we’ve lifted the profile.
“We’re really proud of what we’ve done. Obviously we didn’t come for the bronze medal but it’s so exciting to have all these little girls in this stadium on a Sunday afternoon screaming for our players. That is what I want to see because I was one of them 20 years ago.”
A terrible third quarter saw England lose 47-45 to New Zealand in a raucous semi-final 24 hours earlier.
Maria Folau scored four from four as her team strode into a 5-0 lead within four minutes, while the uncharacteristic errors which would come to prove fatal to England’s chances were encapsulated by a poor star by the normally dependable Jo Harten.
New Zealand led by three at the end of the first quarter but a tactical change by Neville, who shifted Harten and Helen Housby up front and introduced Natalie Haythornthwaite, made a dramatic difference as England stormed back to lead 24-21 at the interval.
But just when England thought they had got a strangle-hold on the game, they fell behind again, a rare giveaway by Guthrie sealing a sorry third quarter which they lost by six to hand New Zealand a 36-33 lead.
Despite sporadically reducing the deficit to two in a frantic final quarter, England could not claw themselves back in the face of the relentless accuracy of Ameliaranne Ekenasio who converted all but one of her 26 shots on goal.