When an old rugby player gives an after dinner speech, the most you can usually hope for is that the jokes will not all be so toe-curlingly vulgar that you want to hide beneath the table and that at least one of his anecdotes might be a year or two short of pensionable age.

There was no fear of either when George Cawkwell got to his feet in Oxford last November. Over the course of 20 minutes, Cawkwell referenced Messalina, Coleridge, Rudyard Kipling, Tom Stoppard, Heraclitus, Cicero and quite a few others. Suffice to say, he had not taken the shortcomings of the offside law as his subject matter.

In fact there was only one rugby reference in there. "I had played games," he said at one point. "I naturally gravitated to the louts."

That impish humour says a lot about Cawkwell, a man in no danger whatsoever of falling for the self-serving fallacy that chasing pigs' bladders around a field should ever be considered a serious business. Yes, he was good enough to play for Scotland, earning his cap against France in 1947, but his greater renown is in another field. A towering figure in the realm of classical scholarship, specialising in ancient Greek history, he has been a fellow of University College, Oxford for the staggering - and almost certainly record - span of 65 years, during which time he has produced a series of seminal works.

Yet rugby does bestow one genuine distinction, as he is now believed to be Scotland's oldest living international player. There are no official records of such things, but Cawkwell does not doubt it. "I suppose you're probably right," he says. "I am 95, you know."

He is feeling the weight of his years, but he still gets up and down the stairs of his home in north Oxford at a decent lick. The sun is streaming through the window of his study as he sits down to talk. The books around the room reflect his academic interests, but a Yeats anthology lies on his desk. His movements are restricted, but not his mind.

Born in Auckland in 1919, Cawkwell studied in New Zealand, fought with the Fijian Infantry in the Solomons and arrived at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1946. A strapping lock, he had played a few times for Auckland province by then - "It was wartime, anyone who was any bloody good had gone away." - and he was picked for that year's Varsity clash with Cambridge in December.

Cawkwell's mother was a Scot who had met his father, a New Zealander, while he was studying medicine in Edinburgh. Growing up, he had no illusions about ever playing for the All Blacks. "I wouldn't have dreamt of it," he smiles, "it was too divine a calling." But his mother's influence was powerful: "I had a very Scottish upbringing. My mother used to play the piano and on Sunday nights we sang Scottish songs after dinner."

It was in the changing room at Twickenham for the Varsity Match that the prospect of playing for Scotland first arose. "People came round and asked who we wanted to be considered for, and I said Scotland because of my mother," he says. Oxford won the game 15-5 and Cawkwell was invited to play in a trial match in Galashiels soon afterwards. He was subsequently named in the side to take on France at Stade Colombes on the 1 January, 1947.

The Scottish team travelled by boat and train to Paris. He remembers little of the journey, but recalls that the players stayed in the palatial Hotel Lutetia on the left bank of the Seine. During the war it had been used as the Gestapo headquarters, and it has been claimed that there were still bloodstains in the foyer when the Scots arrived. "I can't say I saw any," he laughs, "but I remember people getting bloodied on the field."

It was the first meeting between the teams for more than 16 years. France had been cast out of the international rugby community in 1931 amidst accusations of professionalism. Post-war, the mood was more forgiving, although it was said that a number of the French players had played rugby league, a hinterland that was still forbidden at the time.

France won 8-3 after Scotland captain Keith Geddes made an error in failing to touch the ball down behind his line that allowed Toulouse winger Jean Lassegue in for a try. Reports at the time suggested that the French were far stronger and faster than the Scots, but Cawkwell remembers a closer contest. "Only five points in it, so it was not one-sided at all," he says. "I don't remember their forwards being much better. Maybe I was puffing around the field too much.

"I was assigned a job. If I'd known about it, I wouldn't have taken it on. France had two very heavy forwards, Alban Moga was one of them, and there was a danger of them coming round in the lineout. They had to be marked. If they moved forward I had to move forward with them. Moga broke through and I think I was blamed for it."

Accustomed to an after-match pint, the Scottish players were astonished to be offered champagne at the end of the game. The mood of austerity at the time affected France as much as Britain, but the French Rugby Federation seemed oblivious to any restrictions. Once the players had cleaned themselves up, they were taken to the Eiffel Tower for the official banquet.

Cawkwell says: "The dinner was very splendid. If we were having a rugby dinner in this country it would have been beer and some basic food, but they had wonderful food and wine. Another time, I played in Paris with the University and they really liked to do things well there. I don't know what they thought of life in this country and the came over here."

Scotland were to play Wales a month later. Between the two games, there was a second trial, at Murrayfield, and Cawkwell lost his place in the side. "I didn't think much of the selectors at the time," he smiles. "But I think I was very lucky to get a game." By then, too, he had a young wife and a son, the first of three children, to support, as well as an academic career to pursue.

The glittering prizes followed. Over six distinguished decades at Oxford, Cawkwell has lived a life that has more than compensated for the fact his international career was so brief. His 1998 book 'Thucydides and the Peloponessain War' won the Runciman Award. The Cawkwell Fellowship in Ancient History was endowed in his honour. At the age of 91, he published a volume of essays.

His speech in November was part of a series of events to mark his 95th birthday. Former students flocked to Oxford to pay tribute, among them Sir Robin Butler, now Baron Butler, the former cabinet secretary and head of the civil service (and Oxford Blue in 1959) whose tutorial partner for audiences with Cawkwell was the future Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams.

His past students also included "a rather agreeable young man" by the name of Bill Clinton, who also came to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Cawkwell and his wife Pat made to their business to look out for overseas students, and the future president of the United States came to their house for dinner a few times.

"I must say I think very highly of him," says Cawkwell. "He was very popular, we all liked him. He was a modest sort of chap." He also, famously, played rugby while at Oxford, although Cawkwell's assessment of his talents is firmly in the 'damned with faint praise' category: "He tried his hand."

Cawkwell watches a little rugby on television, but his movements are restricted. "You've got to accept when you are old that you won't travel. I keep a street map of Auckland and do a little bit of a mental walk around the town sometimes, but I will never see it again. I will never see Scotland again."

There is sadness in his voice. But he admits he is lucky in other regards as loneliness, so common among the elderly, is never an issue as he has made so many friends down the years. As Lord Butler said in his address to Cawkwell last November: "This has been a life well spent."